Agent Monday: Conference Encounters from the Agent’s Side

Last week I shared some things I learned as an author about meeting agents and editors at writer’s conferences. So, BAM! Let’s switch pitch table sides. Now, as Associate Agent at Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency, I really am on the other side, taking pitches, sitting on the panels, and walking around conferences to meet writers and hear what they have to say. So here are some thoughts, and some tips.

First of all, like I said in last week’s post, the important thing to remember is that agents and editors are people. And most are pretty nice, too. Take the folks at last weekend’s great Push to Publish conference.  I wish I had time to hang out with these agents and editor and swap stories about our clients and our projects. But that’s one thing many conferences are tight on: time.

So as an agent, I arrive with a schedule in hand. For some conferences, I may have just been whisked over from an airport, and have barely arrived before I’m “on.” I love to meet my fellow agents and editors. But above all, I want to meet you writers! But time is short. So I meet with you during pitches, or chat with you during registration, or swap ideas with you during panel talks.  Longer conferences are great because there are more chances for real exchange. Exchange of biz cards, yes, but also exchange of conversation and ideas. There can be time during a cocktail party or in line for breakfast, or just hanging out in the hotel lounge after the main events are over.

But there are often many of you and few of us agents, so when we do get time with you, it’s important to use it well. I’ve done pitch sessions that have run anywhere from 5 minutes to 15. If a writer comes to me and is especially nervous, I understand. Sometimes however, this wastes our valuable time together as we spend our minutes more on getting focused than on talking about a book. In these cases, I think it’s best for the writer to have their pitch written out. If you just admit right up front that you are really nervous and ask if it’s okay to read your pitch, I for one will smile and say of course.  Then you can take a deep breath, read the pitch, and then our conversation can begin from there. And I bet you’ll feel better after that.

Some writers are naturals with pitches and with chatting. And for me, it really is a chat. As if we are sitting together for a moment at a coffee shop, talking shop. These writers smile, and introduce themselves and shake hands. They then sit and say something to the effect of, “I’m here to tell you about my new memoir called ‘About All That.'” And then they say their brief, focused pitch. These authors allow me to then respond with my reaction to the pitch. They listen to any questions I may have and answer them as well as they can. And they ask me questions like what do I think about this sort of book in the marketplace? They listen and allow us to interact, with note-taking happening after our allotted time.  This is all time well spent.

Sometimes writers squander their pitch time because they come to me unfocused. They haven’t thought ahead about the market of their novel (is it YA or mid grade?), or come up with a succinct way to describe the novel to me. So we spend our time together learning about the author, her approach to writing, what she wanted to achieve, the many ways she approached creating this book. Everything but what the book is actually about. And because of that, I can’t give any viable feedback or know if this novel is something I want to look at.

Sometimes writers come into the pitch with only one goal: sell!  I’m not naive. I KNOW that is the goal. But I think this sort of over-focused writer can miss out on great opportunities that lead to the sell. It’s not just about getting that jazzed reaction from the agent and the green light and that book deal. Seriously. It’s about coming into it ready to learn and pick up cues and adapt and make connections. And all of these things can lead you to the sell, so don’t be short-sighted.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A writer comes up to me very confidant with a pitch. She’s ready to sell it, and is sure a smart agent will snap it up. So I hear the pitch. I may be interested, but I’m confused about something so I ask a question. Over confident writer immediately deflates, convinced they’ve failed. Or withdraws, upset (yes, I’ve seen tears in response to questions). Or grows hostile, convinced I’m ridiculous to say no (which I haven’t even said yet) and that there is nothing more I can do for them and so they should just move on to wow the next person.  Every single one of these writers is simply blowing it. Why? Because as long as we have minutes together we can be learning from each other.

I can learn more about the novel in response to my questions. If my concerns are addressed, then maybe I will be interested. The writer can spend time building a relationship with me. Maybe this book won’t fly, but another book might in the future. Why burn bridges? The writer can also be paying attention to my reaction to this pitch. Even if I’m not the agent for you, did I become interested in certain things? Did I become puzzled? Did I express concerns about certain aspects? Then perhaps you can tweak your pitch and your queries to future agents based on this, and be more successful at your next pitch appointment. Ask me, “what do you think?” And if I say I’m not interested, ask me, “do you have any advice that I can use?”

When it comes down to it, I’m looking to work with pros. Even a debut author can be a pro. People who are open to discussion about their books, who are open to suggestions, who are folks I’d consider working with. If you are overly emotional, then I can’t picture you handling changes from an editor or meeting deadlines. If you are hostile or a prima donna, I’m never going to want to work with you. There are many talented people, and even if you are a major talent, if you are sending up flares that you are a difficult person, then I’m not interested.

When I go to conferences, I’m there to meet you, chat with you, and swap ideas. I’m hopeful that I will be finding my next client sitting right across from me. Someone who is professional and interesting and ready to work hard. I meet tons of fascinating people at every one of these conferences. Not all of them end up as my clients, of course. But many of them end up as people who I hope to hear from and interact with again.

I encourage you to remember that a pitch is more than a sell. Conferences are a place to meet people, to make contacts and to learn.  Get questions answered. Try out different pitches for your novel at different conferences and learn bit by bit which parts are most effective and which are not working so well.  Remember all of this can lead to a sell. I always enjoy meeting people who are passionate about their writing. It’s energizing and exciting.

Enjoy the process, and best of luck!

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

9 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Conference Encounters from the Agent’s Side

  1. I appreciate this post so much — so incredibly helpful to see the pitch from the agent’s POV. Not only to remind me that a pitch is more than a sell, but also this: “People who are open to discussion about their books, who are open to suggestions, who are folks I’d consider working with.” I’ve only been to one such pitch, but I got such a terrible case of nerves that I did freeze up and I think I came across as (gulp) overly emotional or maybe not open to ideas. Next time I’m in a one-on-one conversation whether in person or even via email, I will keep your words in my mind. Thank you!

    • Hi Julia,

      Thanks for your comment. And don’t be too hard on yourself. We’ve all had our first pitch, our first everything, and it’s seldom perfect. The important thing is to learn from it, and get yourself back out there with a smile.

      And you’ll do great. I promise!

  2. Authors need to treat it as a job interview. At a conference in Nashville, I saw a lot of people in various types of clothes, but you knew who the pitchers were. They looked and acted professional.

    • Well said! It is like a job interview. This is one of those moments when business and art must blend, and writers who are aware of this can definitely put their best foot forward.

      Thanks for checking in!

  3. That was an enjoyable and informative post. Thank you so much. I learned a lot. I tend to be shy and defensive sometimes, so my friends and I have done mock interviews with each other. It’s a win-win. We are desensitized and more at-ease in pitch situations.

    • Hi Marta,

      Yes! Practice definitely helps. I also think that’s why it’s a good idea to attend a number of conferences. It’s a way of putting yourself out there and getting more comfortable with people on the business side of the spectrum.

      It reminds me of my very first writing assignments for magazines way back. How I sweated over picking up that phone to interview an expert, how my heart pounded during those interviews. But eventually I grew in confidence and realized the human aspect of the expert on the other side of the line.

      Like with so many things, practice makes perfect.

  4. Good post, Marie! Very informative.

    One question: assuming that an agent is interested in your work, how do you politely ask an agent to pitch their services to you? To put it bluntly, what can an agent do for me that I can’t do for myself? My co-author and I have gotten nine business books published without an agent. Sure, we made mistakes with contracts at first – we didn’t keep the electronic rights to the first book. But we learned. Our last contract (with McGraw-Hill) took over four months to negotiate, but we got what we wanted.

    (If this needs a long response, perhaps it could be the subject to another blog post.)

    • Hi Tony!

      Since you are experienced, chances are good that you have a pretty good idea of what you would hope for from an agent, such a garnering larger advances or being more proactive with foreign rights and other sub rights sales.

      Since this is a business conversation you’ll be having, it would be fine for you to ask if the agent has handled books in your market before. In their experience, were they able to sell sub rights? You can politely explain your stance and that you are considering getting an agent but wanted to know if this was a the right move for you at this point in your career. Then ask them what their opinion on it is? Not exactly a “what can YOU do for me,” but a “how can an agent better move my career forward at this point?” The answer will surely include the agent’s personal experiences.

  5. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday – 10-18-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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