It’s that time of year when writers throw themselves into a panic over conference pitch sessions with editors and agents. As a veteran of approximately five million of these sessions, I wanted to weigh in on what has worked best for me.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re not going to sell your book in a five-minute (or even a ten-minute) session with an editor. So relax. What you’re trying to do is start a relationship. That’s how books get sold. If you can just have a conversation with the agent or editor, you’re way ahead of the game. So while it’s important to think about what you’re going to say ahead of time, if you get too focused on you and your pitch, you won’t listen to what the editor or agent is saying. It’s hard to make a connection with someone if all you can think about is your own agenda.
That said, here are 7 tips for getting ready:
1. Figure out how to describe what your book is about in a couple of sentences. Practice these sentences in a couple of different ways, but don’t memorize them. Know what shelf your book will fit on in the bookstore (this is true even for cross-genre or sub-genre stuff – figure out who your main audience is and where they’d look for your book.) Look up a few titles of books similar to yours so that the agent or editor can relate to what you’re trying to do.
2. Be prepared for obvious questions: Why are you the right person to write this book? What made you decide to write this book? Who is the audience for this book? How will you research and write it? Again, think about what you’ll say but don’t try to memorize the answers.
3. Be prepared for not obvious questions. This is a matter of knowing your subject matter thoroughly, and understanding what you can bring to the table. I’ve written a ton about women and martial arts/self defense, so I blinked when an editor said, “I’m trying to expand my line of how-to books for men. What could you do that would help them improve their training?” Fortunately, I knew a lot about martial arts in general (not just as it specifically relates to women), so I was able to formulate a credible answer.
Also, a little honesty goes a long way: “I think I know the answer to that, but I’d better double-check. May I email you the actual stats on Monday?”
4. Ask your own questions: What are you looking for? What is a common mistake writers make when pitching you? What is the most important thing a writer can do to make their book proposal more appealing? Use the time to listen, not just to talk.
5. Don’t get freaked out if the editor or agent hates your book idea. You can take the time to ask some of the questions in #4 – “Okay, then, what are you looking for? What would you like to see come across your desk today?”
Once I could tell that nothing I ever did in this lifetime would be of interest to a particular editor, so I just suggested we wrap it up and asked her if I could bring her a cup of coffee so she could have a little break before the next writer showed up. No, this never resulted in a book deal, but we ended the session feeling fine about each other and life went on.
6. Breathe. Like most people, I have a tendency to talk fast when I’m nervous or excited. I also talk too much. When I go on and on, I lose my listener. I start to sound like I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Now I have a little rule. I allow myself to say two sentences, then I shut up and give the other party a chance to say something. This gives me a chance to breathe and listen. Then, if indicated, I say two more sentences. No one seems to think I’m strange for doing this. In fact, it actually turns out to simulate a real conversation remarkably well.
7. Have a way for the agent/editor to contact you. No agent or editor is going to want to lug home fifty-seven book proposals and thirty-two full manuscripts, but there’s nothing wrong with having one sheet of paper that gives your contact information and a brief overview of your book idea. That will help the agent/editor remember you. The way to offer it is to hand over your business card (if requested), and then say, “I do have a one-sheet here, if you’d like to have that.”
What do you do to make pitch sessions go better?