The Converse College low-res MFA program (where I teach) will be offering students the opportunity to have a pitch session with an agent in January, so I feel compelled to offer advice on how to make the most of a pitch session. No, I’ve never technically participated in this sort of thing, in which an agent sits at a table and writers parade by in 5-15 minute meeting slots—but I’m offering advice anyway.
My first bit of advice feels obvious to me, but here it is anyway: research the agent you’re meeting with. There’s no excuse for not knowing some basic facts about the agency—type of books they’re looking for, some clients. And please go beyond the obvious: yes, the agency probably has a website, but is there also a blog to scour? Interviews for industry pubs? Find out as much as you can so you can ask informed questions.
Next, prepare your “elevator speech.”* This is the 1-2 sentence description of your book. Reread that: 1 to 2 SENTENCES. That’s really short, because I’m not talking Faulkner sentences. So write it out, say it front of an honest friend who will tell you the truth, and practice saying it. This sounds easy, but it really isn’t. There’s an art to it. In my novel-writing workshops, I ask people to practice by writing a 1-2 sentence description of The Great Gatsby. Try that. *The business world calls it an elevator speech because it should take only as long as riding with someone for a couple of floors in an elevator.
Know what you can expect. Do NOT expect that the agent will say, “My God, I must have a copy of that book RIGHT NOW—please give me a 400-page pile of paper that I can lug home on the airplane.” What you might get instead is an offer to read some chapters and/or the book which you will send to the agent at a later time.
Speaking of “a later time”: Generally, agents want to read novels that are already done. Still, if your novel isn’t finished, you don’t have to pass up the chance to meet an agent through a pitch session. Tell the agent you’re still working on the book, but that you expect to be done within the next year* or so. This is your chance to make a connection; when the book is done, you can contact the agent with a charming letter along the lines of “I met you last year at XYZ.” *Say a year even if you fear it might take longer; the agent isn’t turning on a stopwatch.
What if you don’t have a novel yet? Think of the bigger picture. Maybe you will someday, right? So use this as an opportunity to get more information about the agent, the agency, the publishing/marketing process in general. Ask questions. Again, years later, when you have your book ready, you can write to this agent. (This is what to do if it’s suddenly clear that the agent is not right for your book—i.e. you’re writing a mystery, and the agent doesn’t rep mysteries.)
I’ll repeat that again: ask questions. Try to find a point of connection with the agent, and remember that a person blabbing endlessly about themselves will not be someone anyone wants to connect with. And take notes: these are the notes you can refer to next year when you finish your novel (“I remember that you are especially fond of books about….”).
Do I have to mention basic politeness? Don’t overstay your time limit; don’t sit there like a lump and expect the (tired) agent to do all the work of carrying the conversation; smile and seem enthused and passionate about your work and interested in the business. If you’re nervous, simply say so in a charming way; the agent will understand. Be yourself (unless you’re a slob, in which case, clean yourself up a little).
If you have a card, leave one behind. Ask the agent for a card. I suppose that if my novel was done, I’d bring along a few sample chapters and a synopsis, just in case, but don’t expect the agent to ask to see them. Try not to have them in a big, obvious folder so it looks as though you’re expecting to hand them over; ideally, the pages would be hidden in a briefcase/totebag/portfolio that you can pull out if asked—because the agent probably will not ask.
Follow-up with a thank you note/email. Honestly, this is very easy to do and very impressive (as long as you’re not asking for anything in this follow-up).
Don’t harass the agent about your book at other points of the conference—i.e. if you’re eating breakfast with him/her. Be professional. You can chat and ask general questions away from the pitch session—but no one wants to be pestered. Leave a charming impression!
Here’s a funny piece about some more don’ts written by agent Janet Reid based on some actual experiences at pitch sessions.
Here’s a good, basic piece of how to prepare for a pitch session at a conference.
Here’s former agent Nathan Bransford’s excellent tips on pitch sessions.