Pitch and Spin

This past week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) Writer’s Conference in Seattle, Washington. This was my second time attending the well-organized conference. It’s been going on for 60 years, and I clearly see why it is so popular. As a PNWA member, I’m proud of the fact that we have one of the best conferences going. According to the PNWA President, the conference is one of the longest running of its kind in the nation and the world. That’s pretty amazing if you ask me.

One of the best things about the conference is the opportunity to meet agents and pitch your book to them. These “Pitch Blocks,” as they’re called usually have about 10-15 agents lined up on one side of a long string of tables, and you have four minutes to pitch (or sell) your book to them before you have to get up and move onto the next agent (or get in line for the next agent) and do it again.

Pitch sessions are a great way to meet potential agents. It’s way more effective to meet someone in person and convince them to consider your book than it is to send an anonymous email to an agent and get them to respond. They are very busy people, and they receive hundreds of book queries through which they must sift trying to find the next great novel. You have a much better chance of getting noticed if you can begin your query letter with “It was nice to meet you at the PNWA Writer’s Conference. Thank you for asking for more details on my book…”

That being said, there’s no guarantee that a request for more information will get you in the door with that agent. During my first PNWA conference, I pitched eight different agents and received eight requests for more material (e.g. first 3 chapters, 50 pages, etc.), and no one requested the full manuscript. This year, I pitched to eight agents again and received five requests for more information. I’ll be sending my responses out over the next week or so. Only time will tell if I break through. After talking with other writers, I don’t think my experience is unique.

Despite the low success rate, I like pitching much better than I do anonymous querying. For starters, you get feedback in pitch sessions. It’s very rare that you get feedback from query letters. Often query letters receive silence or a simple “No.” It’s unreasonable to expect much feedback from query letters because agents, like you and me, have to make a living, and they only want to spend time on books that they think they can sell. Every moment spent on books that aren’t really for them is lost income. Unless you are in a position to do your job for free (if so, congratulations), you shouldn’t expect agents to give you free feedback. It takes a lot of time to read a full manuscript and provide useful feedback. They’re only going to do it for books they want to sell.

Nevertheless, with pitches, you get feedback. A good agent gives you something that you can take back to your work. They will tell you whether the story has legs, in their opinion, or if your plot is too complicated or over-the-top. They may even give you insight into the market you’re targeting that will help you understand whether or not you are on the money. This feedback is invaluable even if it’s not what you want to hear. At the very least, the body language will give you more than enough to go on during your pitch. If the agent looks disinterested or bored, you know you have work to do.

As every writer knows, the act of writing is a lonely activity. Most people don’t understand why someone would spend hours on end writing a novel that may have little chance of getting published. Unless you have a writing group or an active group of beta readers, it’s hard to get feedback from the outside world and even harder to get objective feedback (good or otherwise). Pitch sessions give you that feedback even if its just a small nugget of insight. That insight alone is worth the effort even if the pitch itself fails to land an agent.

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