Earlier this year, I attended an agent-author mixer hosted by an MFA program here in New York City. For two hours, over snacks and wine, I met with both recent graduates as well as older alumni of the program to take their book pitches. The whole experience felt akin to speed-dating (not such a far-fetched comparison). The agent-author relationship is indeed a courtship—to fall in love over a story, and to make lots of beautiful book babies.
Of course, like dating, you can do it all online, seeking out your agent-mate with a query letter to an agency’s inbox. But pitching a book in person makes the process that much more personal, and it’s an opportunity for authors to show their enthusiasm and woo an agent in real-time.
At the agent-author mixer I attended, the styles and methods for pitching were as diverse as the manuscripts themselves, and some were more effective than others. (Reading a pitch from an iPad: less effective.)
The event got me thinking about the art of the in-person book pitch. Pitching books is something both authors and agents have to master, and I thought I’d provide some tips and techniques for authors doing in-person pitches to agents.
Of course, what worked for me might not work for all agents, but I think these general guidelines are a reasonable starting point.
Practice your pitch
If you aren’t someone so naturally charismatic that you can pitch a book cold with eloquence, humor, and perfect economy of words, then it can’t hurt to practice your pitch before you’re face-to-face with agents. (If you are one of those people, we all secretly hate you.) We’ve all done this for interviews, practicing either with friends or in front of the mirror, and though you don’t have to memorize a script, you’ll have a better sense of your pacing, the length of your pitch, and the main talking points you want to hit if you say it all out loud beforehand.
Keep it casual
Like a good first date, your book pitch should be conversational and relatively informal. It’s okay to be nervous! Agents expect this, and we know it takes some warming up to work out the jitters. When you’ve made your introduction and are ready to start your pitch, take about 2–3 minutes to briefly describe your project, and then you can ease back into a friendly conversation.
Of course, not all pitch scenarios will allow time for small talk. The MFA mixer I attended had no time limit on pitches, and the setting was very relaxed and unstructured. However, at larger writers’ conferences, you may be limited to just your 2–3 minute spiel. This type of scenario cuts out the pleasantries, but it should still be a pleasant back-and-forth!
Ask the agent questions
Take some time to ask an agent what types of books they’re looking for, which writers they represent, what books they’ve sold, and so on. And in keeping with keeping it casual, don’t be afraid to ask an agent questions that are slightly more “personal-professional,” such has their favorite authors, how they got their start in the industry, how long they’ve been an agent, etc. Ideally, your agent will be someone you really click with, who has similar tastes and sensibilities as you, and is an expert in the type of book you’ve written.
Know your genre
Describing your book as “literary fiction” or “memoir” is a starting point, but these descriptors are pretty broad. Try to be as specific as possible. Is your book a psychological thriller, magical realism, paranormal romance, contemporary YA, or a mash-up of something else? You want to give an agent as clear an idea as possible of your category of book.
Give some comp titles
Just like you might in a query letter, it’s helpful to mention some comparable books, or authors who you feel write in a similar style as you, to give a better sense of your project. Mention which books and writers have influenced your work. The “It’s ____ meets _____” technique works well, even if it is a bit clichéd (and deploy with caution—see next paragraph).
Avoid certain pitfall phrases, and outrageous comparisons
While I’ve found many authors lean toward not selling themselves enough, others pull some stunts that will make an agent’s eyes roll (on the inside). I’d avoid describing your work as “the next great American novel,” or directly comparing yourself to literary icons. Of course, as mentioned above, you should reference those projects whose style have influenced your work, and writers whom you admire and have shaped your writing, but it will always sound a bit nuts to compare yourself to Toni Morrison. To that end, avoid bold claims that you’ve written the next Hunger Games or Harry Potter. It’s just too much!
Pitch a friend
One approach that I thought was quite effective (and precious) at the agent-editor mixer was two friends pitching each other’s books. This takes a little bit of the pressure off, and if you’re like me and have a hard time tooting your own horn, someone else is the one singing you and your book’s praises. Again, depending on the type of event (and whether or not you have any friends…) this might not be possible or appropriate, but in a more casual setting, such as this MFA mixer, I thought it was a great technique. (Of course, this shouldn’t be a crutch for avoiding ever pitching your own book. Gotta learn someday!)
Don’t be discouraged if your manuscript isn’t requested
If your project is a bit outside of one agent’s wheelhouse, they will let you know, and will politely (hopefully) not request your manuscript. And if you aren’t asked out on a second date, boogie on over to the next agent, and do it all over again! By your 50th pitch, the nerves will be gone, and you’ll be able to do your pitch in your sleep.
For a more detailed, point-by-point breakdown of the elements of a book pitch, here’s a good guide.
Also this, just because: