Pitching Your Projects

Rockies pitcherI’ve posted on this topic numerous times, but since I’m going to a conference this week and will be hearing dozens of pitches, I wanted to go over (once again) some tips for pitching to agents and editors. We can probably all agree on the “don’ts” of pitching your project. Don’t pitch in the bathroom. Don’t pitch a novel that’s nowhere near ready. Don’t pitch with your mouth full. What are some positive tips we can all use?

I think the secret to making a great pitch is to start with a bit of context or background, then tell me about your book. It doesn’t have to be in-depth, considering your time restraints. But take a moment to introduce yourself and your project before pitching.

Too often, people sit down and nervously launch into some kind of story and I find myself dizzy with confusion. I sit there like a deer in the headlights and then I say something like, “Let’s back up. What’s your name? And is this fiction or nonfiction?”

To me, the best pitches include the following information without me having to ask for it:

My name is _____ and I wanted to meet with you because _____.

I’m writing ______ (what genre).

My publishing history includes _____(number of books, genres).

Today I want to tell you about my book called _____ .

Then, launch into your pitch. This should be 2 to 3 minutes long, MAX, allowing time for the agent or editor to ask questions. Have a 1-minute pitch prepared, too, in case of mealtime or elevator pitches.

Here are some guidelines:

→ Don’t try to tell the whole story. Start with the plot catalyst, the event that gets the story started.

→ Then give the set-up, i.e. what happens in the first 30 to 50 pages that drives the reader into the rest of the book. Include the pressing story question or the major story conflict.

→ Fill out your pitch with any of the following: plot elements, character information, setting, backstory, or theme. You want to include just enough information to really intrigue your listener. Note that your pitch doesn’t have to be all “plot.” If your story is more character driven, then fill out your pitch with interesting character details. If the setting is an important element, talk about that. If the backstory plays heavily, round out your pitch with that. Be intentional in how you structure your pitch.

→ Finish by giving an idea of the climactic scenes and the story resolution.

→ Try not to tell too much of the story in the pitch. The pitch is supposed to get somebody interested, not tell the whole story. Stick to the high points, but be sure to tell enough that you don’t leave your listener confused.

→ Include only a couple of characters.

→ Include one plot thread, or two if they’re closely intertwined. You can hint at the existence of other characters and plot lines.

Be prepared to answer questions that could include things like:
→ How does your story end?
→ What published author’s style would you compare your writing to?
→ Who are your favorite authors in your genre?
→ Is this a series? And if so, what are the subsequent books about?
→ Have you worked with a critique group or a professional editor?
→ Have you pitched this to publishers in the past? If so, what was the response?

Important: Know all the key points of your pitch, but don’t memorize your pitch verbatim. You want to be ready to speak it aloud and sound natural, whether during a planned meeting, a meal, in an elevator or a random encounter. Having your pitches prepared ahead of time (and adjusting them as necessary if you learn new things in workshops) will raise your confidence level.

And most important: To help raise your confidence and lower the nervousness, realize that agents and editors are regular people just like you. We clean our toilets, we change our kids’ poopy diapers, we stress over what to wear and whether we’re having a bad hair day. Also, we REALLY like chocolate. How much more normal could we be?

Have you had any mortifying experiences pitching at conferences? Any great experiences? If you haven’t pitched verbally before, what’s your biggest fear?

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  • Sabrina Hancock

    Thank you Rachelle for all the information you post! Everything you have posted is helping me understand what I need to expect when my book is ready to be published.

    “To help raise your confidence and lower the nervousness, realize that agents and editors are regular people just like you.” I realize they are people to but…the nervousness will still be there when I am ready to put my book and myself out there. I am only on the 2nd draft of my book but looking forward to it!

  • Her Grace

    I wish I was in a part of the world where I could pitch at conferences. I’m too geographically isolated to attend many.

  • Jackie Layton

    Hi Rachelle,
    Thanks for posting this again. I’m trying to stay calm before conference and this helps.

    I read once you wanted to know an author has more than one book in them.
    Greatest fear? Getting tongue-tied and not making any sense.

  • http://rickbarry.blogspot.com/ Rick Barry

    Rachelle, that’s another good contribution to a topic that never grows old among writers. If I were to add any advice at all, it would be to relax and remember that the person across the table doesn’t decide your fate based on one pitch. I know authors who did not capture an agent’s interest with their first manuscript, but who came back later with a winner that did.

    Thanks for this.

  • Gabrielle Meyer

    I had a great pitching experience last year at ACFW. It was my first experience and it could not have gone better. I did everything you recommended and I received two manuscript requests. Six months later I signed with my lovely agent (Mary Keeley) and now I’m heading back to ACFW to pitch to editors. I was nervous, but I remembered that these were just two appointments in my life–there would be more–and my entire career did not hang in the balance. I felt confident in telling my story and in who I am as a writer, which I think made them feel confident in me, too. After getting through the nerves, it was actually a really fun experience and I’m looking forward to pitching again this year.

    • Jaime Wright

      Let’s practice up when we get there, Gabe! :)

      • Gabrielle Meyer

        Absolutely, Jaime! That’s one of the best ways to get comfortable with your pitch!

  • Karen Pashley

    Rachelle, I had to laugh when I saw your post. I’ve been up since six am., going over my pitch. Obsessing over single words, wondering how its possible to have written a 400 page manuscript, a strong one sheet, synopsis, proposal, and notes on everything I could ever need for this conference, only to wake up feeling unprepared to present my book. Thanks for the timely reminder. You seem to really understand what this process feels like from the author’s perspective and I appreciate you for caring enough to try and ease our busy minds. Looking forward to learning, growing, and pitching later this week!

    • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

      Karen, I suspect you will do just fine with your pitch.

  • Roxanne Sherwood Gray

    The fill-in-the-blanks are such a simple but effective tip. At my first appointment, I really didn’t know how to begin the conversation. I mumbled something, then read my pitch from an index card. But the editor was gracious enough to look past my nerves and request my manuscript any way.

    Thanks for making this nerve-wracking process so much easier!

  • JeanneTakenaka

    My first time to pitch was last year. It was nerve-wracking, but the editor I spoke with asked lots of questions about my story, which encouraged me. I’m definitely nervous to pitch this week, but the questions you posted here are so helpful.

  • Leslie Miller

    I have a Sept. 20 conference looming . . . This is, as always, terrific, incredibly practical and helpful information about pitching.

  • Jan Cline

    I gave my very first pitch at my very first conference without knowing anything and with a terrible first novel. It was to an intimidating editor from a big house. I did great with the pitch, I’m comfortable with them. But then he asked me if I had the manuscript with me and would I read a few pages. Now that shook me up. I did read a bit and he asked for a partial. I was much more scared reading those pages than I was pitching.

  • Meghan Carver

    At my first writers conference a few years ago, I pitched a children’s book to the wrong editor without having any idea what a pitch even was. But she was gracious and a regular person. She asked me to send my manuscript to her so she could talk to the children’s acquisition editor. Ultimately, I received a very kind rejection. The learning curve has been steep since then, and nerves wreak havoc at times, but when I think of pitching, I remind myself of that editor and her friendly humanness. Thank you for such specific pointers, Rachelle.

  • Valerie Keiser Norris

    I’ve pitched at a few conferences, so far without success. The worst was when the agent got that look on her face like, “This is SO not for me–how do I not break this poor woman’s heart?” She gave me her contact info and said she’d take a look at it, but that it was a long shot. At least I knew what I was up against.

  • Jaime Wright

    I met with you a couple of years ago at ACFW for my 15 min pitch. I remember how gracious and friendly you were. THAT meant the WORLD to me as a nervous writer. I’m excited to pitch to agents and editors again this week at ACFW and your post above is a great checklist as I refine my pitch and look foward to MBT’s Pitch and Promote session Friday morn. EEEK!!! Conference is so much FUN!

  • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    I haven’t pitched a book, but I’ve pitched a lot of research proposals, and my own academic resume, at conferences. When I learned to distance myself from ‘myself’, it became fun.

    Three suggestions –

    1) If an agent or editor says, “Could I meet you later?”, then wrap up quickly and agree on the ‘later’…even if it means “look for me later”. Don’t try to hang on; the person you’re talking to may have another appointment, and even professionals need a restroom sometimes.

    2) If a pitch starts going downhill, exit gracefully. You will be remembered more for your professional manner than for a pitch that didn’t connect.

    3) This is not a matter of life and death – neither for real, nor professionally. A LOT of books are placed through traditional queries. Take an even strain, and don’t put all of your hopes into your pitch.

    http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com/

  • Andrea Miles Di Salvo

    Even though I don’t have a book ready for publication, I so appreciate all the information you pack into your posts. Specifics! That’s what I need! It all helps me know what to expect when I am ready to start pitching/submitting my first book. Thank you.

  • Maria Polson Veres

    I’m talking about pitches in my “Write-to-publish” class next week, and this information will really help. I’ve pitched a few times at conferences, but I’m always terrified. I like your idea of having a script to follow.

    • sherpeace

      I’m glad to know some classes deal with the publishing industry. I got my MFA in Creative Writing and not once was there any discussion of how to get published or even any mention of it, like it was the elephant in the room that everybody was pretending not to see. Our very last assignment was a query letter, but, just as you might imagine, we had to research on our own “How to write a query.”
      I found it all frustrating, only after the fact. I was so busy trying to get my thesis down, there was no time to think about it until it was all over.
      I am glad there are people in the industry like Rachelle. Otherwise, I would be lost still. ;-)

      • sherpeace

        Thesis “done,” I meant.

  • sherpeace

    I was mortified beforehand, trying to plan the EXACT right words. The 4 people I was pitching to (an agent, a publisher, a published author and a PR rep for authors), told me to put my index cards away and just tell them the premise of the story and who the audience would be.
    They ended up giving me some really sage advice about a relationship my protagonist has. It made the story much more immediate and added more layers to the story, as well as making my protagonist’s experiences part of the “Secrets & Lies In El Salvador.”
    I realized I still had work to do, but also that I had a great premise and story structure. Nothing was wasted. In fact, I may pitch them again this year!

    • sherpeace

      P.S. Our pitches are only a maximum of 7 min. here in SoCal. That’s why I needed to write my pitch on index cards. I was afraid I might forget something really important. It all worked all though; if I hadn’t written & rewritten, I would not have been able to tell the panel the essence of my story.

  • http://www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com/ Michelle McGill Vargas

    I pitched for the first time at a conference this summer. The agent was nice, but the mortifying part was being in a tiny room with four other agents listening to pitches. In the three minutes I had to speak over the noise, He said “Huh” three times. Repeating myself ate up half my time. Needless to say it was a no-go, but I was grateful I got through it. I’ll try again… one day.

  • cjoy

    Writing means I have time to fix the words that go the wrong direction. So my biggest fear is tripping over what I’m saying. haha! But, I’m paying close attention to the posts like this and working to refine my pitch(es). Thanks for the great tips.

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    I haven’t pitched. I don’t go to conferences. I do my best NOT to compare myself to other writers. I’m just self-publishing for now. At some point I’ll likely shop my work, but the time is not yet here. I have a teaching job and an eight-year-old daughter. I keep one foot planted firmly in reality. If and when I do pitch, I’ll have no fear. I write for myself, not for what slick publishers want.

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  • Steven Hutson

    I pitched my book to Rachelle at a conference years ago. I came prepared with a presentation that covered all of those points, but the only question she had for me was “what have you been reading lately?” I was totally unprepared for that one. It’s all good; I recovered.

  • http://oviscreative.com/ Matt Financial Marketer

    Pitching a book is like playing baseball. You always have to focus on your target.

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