On March 13th, 2017 by eric

How to Nail an In-Person Pitch: Some Questions You Should Be Ready For

Posted In:
Agency | Conferences | P.S. Literary | Tips

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I love taking in-person pitches at publishing conferences.

It's how I found Lindsey Smith (her book, Eat Your Feelings, comes out with St. Martin's Press next year!), and I've had the wonderful opportunity to talk with numerous writers around the country. About their books, about their platforms, all kinds of good stuff, sharing advice as well as dishing out suggestions for their projects.

But without fail, at every conference I attend, there are certain questions I ask that seem to trip writers up. And sometimes, not having answers to those questions sends up serious red flags.

So I thought I'd do a little post, to dish out some tips for those of you pitching agents and editors in-person. Because while you may have polished that pitch to perfection, you're going to need to answer these kind of questions.

1. What's Your Book About?: Right away, at every conference I go to, when I sit down with an author, this is what I open up with. Tell me about your book. What have you written? What's it about? Give me the details.

This should be the quickest and easiest question to answer, but sometimes it trips people up.

Every writer comes prepared to talk about their book at these things. It's why you are there, for the most part. But not every writer is able to talk about their book in a quick, succinct way. Remember, you've only got like ten, maybe fifteen minutes here to sum up your entire story.

Don't use this time to explain the entire intricate plot of the book. This isn't a book report. Treat it as though you're reading the back-jacket copy of a book to a friend in your local bookstore. You're shopping and you're trying to sell them on this book. That's what you would show them.

You can read the jacket copy of a book in a minute or two. You want to have plenty of time for the agent to ask YOU questions and for you to ask your own. Don't spend it explaining every little thing. Save room.

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thinking

2. How Many Words?: Know the word count of your book. Agents and editors are going to ask this.

And that being said, before you even get ready to pitch, know what the typical word count is for your respective genre. If you show up boasting an enormous, unheard of word count for a book, it might tell the agent / editor that you're not familiar with the genre.

Writer's Digest has a great post about typical book lengths here. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Just be savvy.

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3. Why Tell This Story? or Why Is This Your Story to Tell?: This question has made a few people uncomfortable during in-person pitch sessions, but it's one that I absolutely always ask, when a writer talks to me about a novel that deals with sensitive subjects. Particularly ones that are close to my heart.

If you've written a book say, about characters living with mental illness, or maybe a story with a diverse cast of characters, or a novel about characters living with disabilities... I'm going to want to know what your experience is with all of this. Are you representing these characters right?

I can't tell you how many people have pitched me a novel about a character living with mental illness, and when I ask about research and sensitivity reads, I get no response. When I tell them how my wife lives with mental illness (she blogs about it here) and how I can tell right away if someone hasn't done their homework, usually the pitch session is over.

So. Do your homework. Be able to explain why this is your story to tell. Did you get sensitivity readers? Did you do your research? Has it been read widely?

And even after all of that, if you can't explain why it's your story to tell... then it isn't your story to tell.

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harry

4. What Have You Read in the Genre Recently?: Speaking of genre... I get pitched a lot of YA, sci-fi, and fantasy at conferences, which is fantastic, because that is what I'm there looking for. But nothing makes me hit the brakes faster than when I ask what a writer has read recently in their respective genre, and they don't have an answer.

Or even worse, when they say they don't really read in their genre.

If you tell me that you don't actively read, that throws up a red flag. When potential YA authors tell me the last great YA novel they read was The Chronicles of Narnia (this happens a lot, this isn't a silly joke example) or that they don't really read YA at all, I immediately lose interest.

I want to work with writers who actively read where they want to write.

Be ready with an answer. And if you don't have an answer because you aren't actively reading the kind of books you want to write... maybe rethink what you're writing? The best way to be a good writer, is to read. If you aren't reading, you probably aren't writing anything worth reading.

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5. What's Your Platform?: This is the kind of question you're going to get asked if you're writing non-fiction.

As I've rambled about on here before, platform doesn't really matter when it comes to fiction. It helps, sure. But, your story is what's important here. But with non-fiction, editors and agents want to work with experts. Writing memoir? They want to work with authors who can prove people want to hear their story. Writing a collection of essays? We're going to want to see where you've been published before.

And when it comes to that non-fiction book you're working on, be it about a major historical figure or how to be a good parent, you need to show your expertise. Where have you been blogging? Where have you been speaking?

Remember, platform isn't just your social media presence. It's your regular speaking engagements, the places you've written. Make sure you're established there, and have something to discuss.

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weekend

Literally me, when asked about weekends and my life.

6.What's Your Life Outside of Writing Like: Gasp! A question that doesn't have to do with your book? That's right.

Here's the thing about agents and writers, friends. It becomes a very personal relationship. For some. At least, for me it does. These become the people you talk to every day. Me and my authors, we talk in Google Chat constantly. We text. We gossip about non-book things frequently. You become friends.

So be ready for an agent to want to get to know you a little better. Don't shrug and say "oh, nothing really interesting" when chances are, you do have something interesting. Share bits about yourself. Your hobbies. What you do for a living. What you're studying. Things like that. Making a personal connection is important here.

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And those are the usual things I bring up. So! Come ready with answers. Because we are going to have questions.

19 responses to “How to Nail an In-Person Pitch: Some Questions You Should Be Ready For”

  1. Katie says:

    This is one of the best How-To articles I've read about pitching in person. I like how it goes "Bigger Picture" and touches on more than just the actual pitch, which is very crucial, to other important questions the agent or editor may ask. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  2. Rochelle says:

    I've experienced that open-mouthed fish face thing when asked some of these questions at a face-to-face pitch. Im getting better. I'm still researching the comps issue. Even my readers can't tell me who they'd compare my stories too. I'm thinking of resorting to "character development like ____, the emotional depth of ____, and the awkward humor of _____. How does that work for agents? Is that enough for a comparable work? And thank you for putting it like you did. Takes some of the unknown out of the process. I especially like what you said about the working relationship because I often wonder just how involved an agent will be. Thank you!

    • eric says:

      Hey Rochelle!

      You're right! Sometimes it's less about comparing the actual plot of the book, and more about comparing the elements of the story. Character, tone, themes... all of that totally works when brewing up comparative titles. 🙂

  3. Rachel says:

    This is the helpful pitching article I've ever read - and I've scoured the internet. 😀 Thank you!

    Question: Is it an issue if I don't read a TON in my genre every year because I read a lot of different genres?

    I write Adult SFF, but I split my reading time between Adult SFF, YA Fantasy, Historical Romance, Biographies, books on battle tactics, etc. So my recent "in-genre" reads are usually low. Would that be a red flag during a pitch?

    • eric says:

      Oh no, reading widely is great! Please do that! Please!

      It would just be a red flag to me if you said "I write Adult SFF" and when asked what the last great book you read in your genre was, you said something like... "I don't really read sci-fi, but I loved Ender's Game." I'd likely scream and crawl away, for many reasons.

  4. Manju Howard says:

    Hi, Eric. I appreciate your post. I can relate to freezing when asked by an agent, "What is your book about?" I knew exactly what my mostly PB mss were about. The problem was fear. Only after attending a few conferences and writing a million words could I sound as coherent as my writing. We writers have to remember that the author/agent relationship is a partnership, not an all powerful agent looking down at a powerless writer.

  5. This is so helpful! Thank you!

  6. I kind of understand #1 because I struggled to explain the first book I wrote succinctly. But, not with the second one I just finished writing. Is it weird that I could think of at least 10 answers for all of those questions? Don't get me started about all of my hobbies!

  7. Bethany says:

    Thank you for this concrete advice on how to prepare for in-person pitching! The idea always makes me nervous, especially as an Aspie who's a lot better at written communication than verbal. So having a good idea of what to expect and prepare for makes it much less stressful for someone like me.

  8. Amanda says:

    Hi Eric, thanks for the info. For #5 - I've read a lot about the importance of marketing, that a lot of publishers won't help authors with marketing so authors will most likely be doing the bulk of the work there. Wouldn't an author platform be important for fiction authors, so they could market? Or is this not as important as I've been led to believe? Thanks again!

    • eric says:

      Hey Amanda!

      Not true. All worth-while publishers market their books. They have publicity and marketing departments. Their only job is to get your book in front of reviewers, librarians, booksellers, etc.

      However, it IS a partnership and you and the publisher are part of the same team. Authors should do some work on their own, some of the lifting. So yeah, it's important to be in that community down the line, but it isn't going to stop you from getting a book deal. The story is first. 🙂

      • Amanda says:

        There is a lot of conflicting advice out there, and navigating it is tough for a newbie like me. I appreciate you answering me, and thanks for clearing that up!

  9. […] For a great article on what questions agents might ask you, check out Eric Smith’s post here. […]

  10. This was a great and informative read as a blogger and reader and I think it'll help me a lot when writing posts in the future and interviewing authors, agents, librarians, bookstore owners, etc. Thanks

    PS: it's missing Auggie's special touch. And I finally read Chronicles of Narnia series a few years back. LOL So magical and imaginative!

  11. Cyndi Cobb says:

    Thank you. Great insight!

  12. Thanks for sharing your insights. You'd have totally tripped me up with #4, what I've read recently, outside of the book I'm finishing and the other I brought in case I have free time at MWW. Looking forward to ... gulp ... meeting you shortly.

  13. […] Arrive early to your scheduled pitch time in case someone before you doesn’t show up (happened to me both years) and you can get extra time with the agent. Bring questions to ask at the end of the pitch. Worse case scenario is the agent says the novel doesn’t sound like it’s for him/her, and then you can ask for feedback. No matter what the feedback is, smile and nod and say thank you. Don’t defend yourself. Answer their questions. Come prepared. I was a little thrown off this year because I had way more time than I thought I would, so next time I will bring more questions to ask the agent and over prepare. Make sure you’re grateful and thank them for their time and feedback. This is extremely valuable one-on-one time you get with an industry professional, so don’t waste that. This conference offers it for free, so take advantage of it for sure. Eric Smith, an agent with PS Literary Agency and the agent I pitched to this past weekend, has some … […]

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