10 (+1) Tips on Pitching

Note from the Web Editor: While the article refers to the upcoming San Francisco Writers’ Conference, of which WNBA is a sponsor, the advice it gives is applicable more widely. We hope it will be useful to writers planning to attend WNBA-SF Pitch-O-Rama on Saturday, March 25, 2017. Click on the link for details and to sign-up.

Gordon Warnock, founding partner at Fuse Literary, on pitchingWritten by Gordon Warnock

It’s almost Valentine’s Weekend, which means it’s almost time for one of my favorite matchmaking events, the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. I’ve been going to this one every year even before I was an agent (shout out to Linda Lee and her crew of rockstar volunteers), and I wouldn’t miss it. This year, Laurie, Jen, and I will be there and giving more than a dozen sessions between the three of us, and there are 42 other agents and editors in attendance.

The biggest draw of the event is without question the four hours of Speed Dating with Agents in which you get to pitch your work to as many agents as possible. Though that sounds like a long time, it goes quicker that you’d think. First, the time is broken down into 51-minute blocks, of which you get admission to one. Second, there are a lot of ways that you can end up wasting that time. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of it:

1. Show up early. If your session is at 10, and you show up at 10, you’re going to be one of the last ones in the door. So, by the time you find your agent of choice (hint: we’re usually arranged alphabetically), there will already be a line. Just don’t show up too early as they eschew lines.

2. Lines are inevitable, so don’t get tunnel vision. If you get too focused on one agent, you might miss out on other opportunities. Rank the agents who are attending, and create a list, so if your #1 choice has a line out the door, but your #2 and #3 choices each have a one-person wait, you can quickly recognize and take advantage of that. Know where you’re going, and know where you’re going next.

3. Research the agents ahead of time. I’ve had plenty of folks stand in line only to walk up to my table, glasses trained on the conference program, and saying, “Do you work with fantasy?” This event is never on the first day of the conference, so, even if you didn’t look up the agents beforehand (which you totally should—we’re right here, and we all have websites), take that conference program back to your room on the first night, and spend some time getting familiar with each agent’s tastes. We can fit a lot more on the internet than in the allotted 100-word bios.

4. Don’t try to convince us otherwise. If we say, online or in person, that we aren’t looking for a specific genre, move along to another agent. It’s OK. There are a lot of other agents in that room and even more in existence. You’re looking for the best agent for you’re your work, not just any agent (and especially not one who doesn’t know or like your genre).

5. Practice your pitch. You’re trying to sell me on the idea of your manuscript being a good fit for me and the markets I work in…and you only have 3 minutes to do so. That’s no small feat, so you’d better plan and know what you’re going to say ahead of time. If you go off on tangents or take a while to discover which point you want to make, you’ll burn through that time without conveying what I need to know to make a decision. Keep in mind that we’re not just analyzing your idea. We’re seeing how well you communicate with a potential business partner and talk about your work—both very important parts of being a professional author. Along those lines, part of your pitch should include info about you and what makes you the best person to write this book.

6. Make this a real conversation. Sure, you should know the topics you want to cover, but be present in the moment. All too often, someone sits down, their eyes glaze over, their voice pitches, and they launch into, “Imagine a world where…” You don’t want me feeling like I could leave, and you’d keep talking. Likewise, be prepared to talk about any aspect of your manuscript that happens to come up in conversation. Don’t keep bringing the discussion back to the same, prepared talking points. Even if your book is about robots, don’t be a robot.

7. Let us talk. If you have a 3-minute appointment, don’t talk for 3 minutes. Talk for about a minute. Let us ask questions and get the information we need. If I have a question 30 seconds in, and I never get to ask it, I’ll not only be distracted for the remaining 2:30, but I may end up passing out of sheer frustration. A good pitch is a dialogue, not a monologue.

8. Treat us like people. I’ve had folks freak out as if, as an agent, I somehow exist on a higher plane than everyone else, and I’ve had folks talk down to me as if I were their servant or someone who couldn’t possibly understand their brilliance. Some agents say you should treat this like a job interview. At the very least, you should treat us how you’d like to be treated.

9. Treat yourself well, too. Don’t show up exhausted and hung over. Don’t skip breakfast that morning. Don’t beat yourself up thinking your work is inferior, and don’t let yourself get worked up into nervous wreck. You will do a better job of pitching if you’re feeling well.

10. Mind the bell. When you hear the bell that marks the end of your 3 minutes, thank the agent, and quickly move on. Some folks try to linger, and unless the agent encourages it, it only conveys to the agent that you can’t follow directions. It also means the rest of the folks who just pitched will get a head start on getting into that next line you had your eye on.

But the most important tip of all is to not just go to the Speed Dating with Agents. This conference has been growing in recent years and is now 5 days of panels, lectures, signings, mixers, classes, contests, and Q&A. You might learn something that will help you ultimately get an agent—whether from the Speed Dating session or not.

Admission to the conference has been sold out, but there are open enrollment classes on Thursday and Monday and free events open to the public.

Gordon Warnock is a founding partner at Fuse Literary, serving as a literary agent and Editorial Director of Short Fuse Publishing. He brings years of experience as a senior agent, marketing director, editor for independent publishers, publishing consultant, and author coach. He frequently teaches workshops and gives keynote speeches at conferences and MFA programs nationwide. He is an honors graduate of CSUS with a B.A. in Creative and Professional Writing. 

The original version of this post appeared on the Fuse Literary website and is republished here with the author’s permission. 

The San Francisco Writers’ Conference includes free events open to the public: see this recent post for details.

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