You have a chance to pitch your book idea to an editor or an agent at a conference. I’ve written about this before (see “That Conference Appointment”) but thought it may be helpful to come at the topic from a different direction. The pitch itself.
These tips can help whether or not your appointment is virtual or in-person.
Seriously. Relax. This 15-minute appointment won’t make or break your career. It is merely another step along the journey. I’ve had people burst into tears the moment they sat down because of nerves. Others were visibly shaking, and then made it worse because they were embarrassed by their attack of nerves. Realize that we’ve done this before and are not there to crush you. We understand your nervousness. It’s okay.
But, if you can, try not to put all your emotional eggs into the basket of this short bit of time. To ruin the metaphor: Those eggs should be hardboiled ahead of time, so they don’t make a proverbial mess if they crack under pressure. (!!!)
Sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how ill-prepared many people are. Imagine this is your audition for a big part in a show. I hope you treat this opportunity with the same fervor.
Consider recording yourself using your phone to see what you look like. Are your eyes looking up to the left or right while talking? What are you doing with your hands? Some people have looked like they are flailing at a cloud of circling flies with their hands. Others literally sit on their hands, which doesn’t look very natural!
The idea is to get comfortable with your pitch.
3. Keep it short but not too short.
Imagine you are standing at the water cooler at work or school. Someone asks, “What is your book about?” How long does that person want to stand there listening to you?
Now imagine the person to whom you are talking has started to fidget, obviously no longer interested. Do you just get louder? Do you double down with even more detail? I hope not.
At the same time, don’t make it so short that we still don’t know what is going on.
The back cover copy of your book (once published) will have a headline at the top. And then about 150 words.
That’s still quite short. Maybe too short for this discussion. Instead, think of 1-2 minutes.
You can include the inspiration for the story. The story or book concept itself. And, if nonfiction, even a bit about yourself and why you should be the one to write the book.
4. Avoid reading off a piece of paper.
The problem with this strategy is that you will sound like you are reading from a piece of paper. Monotone.
Yes, I know. It’s hard if you are not comfortable speaking in “public.” However, consider the reality that if you are to be a published author, you will be asked to talk about your book in public places (bookstores, events, podcasts, radio, even television). As a guest on a major TV talk show, you won’t be able to look at your index-card notes! Now is the time to start getting used to the emotional turmoil that comes with speaking.
You may also have handed the editor or agent a pitch sheet (one sheet) or a few manuscript pages and a proposal; and your pitch is now in front of us, ready to be read. But I want to hear you articulate it.
5. Ask questions.
You might be surprised to know that many editors and agents like to talk about their work! We love what we do, and we’ve accepted the invitation to be on the receiving end of a series of pitches.
Therefore, during the conversation (which is what a pitch session is), if you ask something related to your story or your nonfiction book, it creates fodder for a discussion.
I’ve been asked for advice like “Should I write this in first person present tense or leave it as is?” “Is there a preferred style for this genre?” “Should I include group discussion questions at the end of each chapter (nonfiction) or at the end of the book or not at all?” “What is your favorite book in this genre?”
Or questions like “How do I know when my manuscript is ready to show someone like you?” “My critique partners disagree about the length of my book; what do you think is ideal?”
6. Look me in the eye.
If yours is a virtual appointment, be careful. I’ve noticed that with the casual nature of Zoom-type calls, people start looking away from the camera as if something else is more important. Stay focused! Plan on someone keeping the kids out of the room. Or your pets. I may like Fido and Fluffy, but they can be distracting.
In person? Be natural (try to blink!) but stay on task in our conversation as if there is no one else more important in the world for these few minutes. We will try to do the same for you.
7. Take notes.
I’m amazed how rare this is done. I’ve been told that many people will leave the appointment and try to write it all down afterward. That’s fine, but the editor or agent may have said two dozen things that could help you. It’s not rude to ask, “Could you say that again?” while your pen is poised. Or ask, “What was the title of that book you referred to?”
Our side of the table
On our side of the table, we are obviously listening to your idea and reacting to its viability or unique qualities. At the same time, we are looking at you to get a sense of your ability to articulate your ideas. How do you respond to our questions or feedback (I’ve had writers begin to argue with me during the appointment) asking, “Is this person presenting themselves as a professional?”
You might have other tips or tricks to help those who are new to this adventure. Please add them in the comments below.