Between you and your dreams of a traditionally published novel stands a powerful stranger. Agent or editor, they guard the gate between creative aspiration and success in the marketplace. More than anything, they yearn for great stories, long to launch the story that you wrote. However, their hearts have been broken before, their wisdom, expertise and resources devoted to stories that failed to thrive. Arms folded, they await your strong, market-oriented pitch to convince them to swing the gate open for you.
Writer conferences offer opportunities for writers and agents or editors to meet in person. While the formats and structures vary, a writer is smart to be ready at all times, at all venues, to pitch the story. While the following apply to professional and craft conferences, you can use these guidelines to talk to anyone about your story, even that jaded-attitude stranger at your friend’s cocktail party.
Before the Pitch
Identify and align with your genre. The marketplace is organized by genre (such as mystery, romance, literary fiction) — even a masterful, genre-busting mash-up needs a home within a single genre home. Meet the requirements for the genre for elements such as word count and you’ll have demonstrated your understanding of the market.
Specify the ideal reader/audience for the story. Who wants to read your story — and why? Do you offer a specific perspective or unique appeal to readers that will support marketing, publicity, other aspects of bringing the story to the audience?
Provide comparable/competitive stories. Name three to five recently published novels that your story compares with favorably — make sure that the novels are well-regarded and trending positively (sales in the thousands of copies). Be familiar with and read within the genre, particularly the novels you cite.
Research the Agents, Agencies, Editors, and Publishers. Investigate the attendees, identify who is a good fit for your work, rank order the people that you want to pitch. Know them and their firms thoroughly, who they represent, what they are looking for, and where your work fits with their goals. Note any recent news, accomplishments, promotions, and awards and mention them when you meet. Prepare for every person who might be a good fit; you might meet them later in the bar, a coffee shop, elsewhere and have the chance to talk with them then (if they’re open to it, of course).
Ready Your Pitch
Elevator Pitch (one sentence, twenty-five words or less, that provides a basic understanding of the protagonist and challenge).
Paragraph (three to four sentences, more detail about the protagonist, the challenge, the key plot points).
One-Pager (when your listener wants more detail about the protagonist, the antagonist, the challenges, themes).
Single Line Comparative Set the tone and frame for your story using well-known examples such as “My story is like (what is your novel like: HungerGames meets Animal House; Frankenstein meets Love Story).
Interesting Anecdote Be prepared to relate an anecdote that further explains, brings to life, and develops the theme and atmosphere for your novel. A short personal experience works.
Know Your Story From Every Angle Be prepared to describe the major plot, subplots, themes, major characters, setting, and every aspect of your story. Share the ending if asked — most will want it.
Plan Your Efforts. If possible, get the layout of the room. Figure out where your top prospect is and then all the others. Make sure that you meet with the top targets, even if you have to wait in line, but adjust as needed.
Be Ready. Drink water, check your teeth in the mirror, and get ready to talk about your incredible story.
Work Your Plan. Make sure that you have rehearsed your pitch and can deliver it in a conversational way. Talking demonstrates mastery, personality, and confidence. Practice until you’re comfortable — you can trade pitches with the other writers you meet.
Work within the parameters, be prompt and respectful. If you have five minutes in total, plan for an initial introduction, making your pitch (about a minute or so), listening to feedback (at least a minute or more), and answering questions. Leave time for follow-up — and record what you are asked to provide, be it submitting a partial or an entire manuscript or a particular format, timetable, or manner. If the conversation is over, shake hands and leave. Don’t linger if you’ve received positive interest and don’t talk beyond the limit (it’s rude, unprofessional, and unfair to everyone else).
Be sensitive to the person that you are speaking with; this is a conversation. Don’t blither about being nervous, complain, panic; it’s a waste of precious time. Be personable, genuine, respectful. Your pitch represents you as a writing professional as well as the incredible story you have to share.
Stay Positive. Your story isn’t for everyone; not every agent and editor may like it. Don’t take it personally. Chalk it up to experience and go on to your next prospect. Mishaps occur, things go awry, stay calm and level headed no matter what happens. Keep going strong until you have covered your targets.
After the Pitching is Done
Complete Your Notes. Review business cards, requests, and other materials. Jot reminders of stories, connections, and other personal qualities to use in follow-up notes and future conversation.
Follow Up. Provide exactly what the agent or editor requested. You don’t have to send it immediately (unless that’s what you agreed to do); make sure that your submission is your best effort, edited and formatted as expected and as you’ve promised to deliver.
Congratulate Yourself. Pitching your story is one of the hardest things that you will ever do. Rest, celebrate, rejuvenate, and get to work. Pitching is an essential part of traditional publishing — once you’ve done it once, you’ll be ready for all the variations yet to come with sales teams, bookstores, reviewers and critics, librarians, readers, and everyone else.
Wishing you all the very best in pitching your story and in launching your publishing career. Be persistent, be courageous, be single-minded in sharing your story with the world.
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