Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Writer D.A. Riser asked:

I forget who, but someone had a blog out this weekend that agents aren't interested in pitches at conferences. Basically, their point was that the agents are just too polite to tell you no to your face so they ask you to send them your query, regardless. Does that match your experience, or did you find some that you think were sincerely interested?

No and yes.

It's my understanding that most agents wouldn't be traveling to and accepting pitches at conferences if they weren't looking for new authors and interested in finding the next great/fresh/exciting voice out there.

I didn't expect that most agents at the convention would be interested in carrying home my manuscript - even just the first 50 pages - so I didn't bring that. I did bring along an extra thumb drive, just in case I needed it. Hey, it never hurts to be prepared, right? (I didn't need it.)

I was a little surprised to learn (though it makes sense, in retrospect) that the agents didn't want to be bogged down by any paper, including business cards and query letters. Some took notes during the pitch sessions, most didn't, all wanted the query and requested material to be sent via email or snail mail after the conference.

Love Is Murder is a great little conference (it's limited to no more than 300 attendees) and one of the most helpful sessions for me - someone who's just beginning the query process - was the session called "How to Pitch to an Agent or Editor" that was scheduled before the first Pitch-A-Palooza session. That single session taught me more about what the agents and editors were looking for, individually and as a group, than anything else I've heard or read. And it let me know which people I was most interested (or most uninterested) in working with, too. I loved that.

I pitched to 5 agents at Love Is Murder and got 5 requests for more material. I think that several of the agents were being polite and asking for material from everybody, preferring to deal out rejection via email or snail mail later rather than in person.

But I did overhear one of the agents and a couple of the editors bluntly telling other authors, "I can't sell that," and "I'm not really looking for that right now," or "this just isn't a good fit for me." I did see some authors walking away from pitches empty-handed, without the agent or editor's business card with submission information hastily scribbled on the back.

And even when the agents did ask to see more material, there were variations. For example, the first agent to whom I pitched asked me for 75 pages. She asked for material from the woman who pitched to her right after me, too, but only 50 pages. Random? Who knows. The other author and I dissected our conversations with the agent trying to figure that out. But the agent and I had a great conversation in which she highlighted the challenges of what I'm trying to do, then started talking about how those could really be positives in this market, etc. She seemed genuinely interested and called my pitch fresh, new, and interesting. (Yay!)

One agent to whom I pitched asked for the whole manuscript. I heard her asking for other complete manuscripts, which definitely took the wind out of my sails a bit, BUT. Even within that general request, there were hints about how she really felt (I hope.)

After hearing my hook and pitch, this agent asked me, "These threats, are they happening online as well as in person?" From the way she asked the question, I could tell that there was a correct answer here, and I immediately provided it.

"Yes," I said, mind racing, already thinking about how I could add that into the manuscript and getting excited about how the story could really be improved by this, a lot of tension added via the change.

"Send it to me!" she said quickly. "Immediately. Tomorrow!" She did ask for manuscripts from other writers; I heard her saying things like, "Send it to me; I'll take a look at it." She did not tell everyone, "The whole thing. Immediately! Tomorrow!"

So I'm choosing to think that's a good thing!

Over the course of the weekend, I refined my pitch quite a bit. At first I tried to downplay the online gaming part of my novel, thinking that would be a turnoff for a market that skews older and female (as interest in computer gaming skews younger and male). I was surprised to find a lot of interest in the online component to my novel - even from the agent who requested all follow-up materials via snail mail - and came away from from the pitch sessions with ideas about how to actually beef up that part of the manuscript and consider building a series out of the online community rather than (or in addition to) the analog community I've built for my characters. It turns out that there might be room for a conventional mystery that's not a cyber-thriller but still has a web 2.0 component to it.

I could have spent months querying agents via email without getting the same amount of feedback I got by pitching face-to-face at a conference, even before I got over my initial terror enough to start asking cogent follow-up questions. Both my pitch and my novel will be stronger for it.

Another thing I was surprised to learn was that the agents and editors did not want to see writers using notecards or crib sheets of any kind. And in the "How to Pitch" session, they kept telling us not to be nervous. As if! But I heard things like, "If you don't know what your story is about without looking at your notes," and "If you can't sell me with enthusiasm," then they didn't think you were ready to sell and promote your novel.

So I skipped the panel session immediately before my first pitching session and spent an hour in my room, practicing my pitch over and over and over in the mirror, without using my visual aids. I didn't think I'd be able to do it, but I had to, so I did! And I'm so glad I got over needing that crutch!

In my first pitch, I stopped, closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself, apologized, and started over. It all went great after that, and I had chosen an agent for my first pitch that I thought would be sympathetic to a nervous author. (She was.) She told me how she thought she could sell it, and asked to see 75 pages.

Now I just need to finish The Dreaded Chapter - not the last chapter, that's written, but the one before it, the chapter in which It All Comes Together, the hardest and scariest chapter for me to write. And I need to polish, then send my manuscript out to readers. And then I'll be ready to sent it out to these 5 agents and a few others.

En guarde!


  1. That's an absolutely great post, Sarah. Many, many thanks! It sounds like I do need to get out and go to a conference.

  2. This is really exciting to hear!

    You might be underestimating the market for women an gaming - they have said that women are picking up video games, both online and in hand, thanks to the popularity of the Wii. It's like a gateway drug, so to say.

    I'm now realizing that I've never really heard what your novel is about. We'll have to remedy that someday. :o)

  3. Thanks, D.A. I highly recommend the conference experience. It is expensive, though.

    Rob, I'll email you the current pitch. :)

    Yep, some women game. :) (You've heard stories about me playing Quake 2 and Duke Nukem 3D in the dorms as an undergrad, right?) Years in marketing taught me to look at the larger trend more than the individual sale. But I am counting on you being right, that the market is larger than expected. And I don't need the readers to be gamers, I just need the idea to be familiar enough to them that it's not intimidating, a complete turn-off. :)