9 Steps to a Great Pitch by Ralph Walker
Step 1: Create an Opportunity
You’ve written a novel, or maybe you are still working on one. It’s pretty good. Actually, it’s damn good. You know it, your spouse knows it, your best friend knows it, even the guy who cuts your hair knows it, but nobody who works in publishing knows it, yet.
Maybe you’ve written started to research a few literary agents. Maybe you’ve even written a query letter, or two, or two hundred. So far you haven’t moved beyond the slush pile.
Pitching is one of the greatest opportunities to make a case for your work. One on one, face to face you will be able to make a presentation and get a reaction from a person, in the moment. The moment will probably be brief, sometimes even fleeting, but it is your chance to make an impression that can move you along in the publishing pipeline.
Pitching!! That is a great idea! I’ll just head over to my favorite agent’s office, knock on their door and ask for a minute or three of their time. I am sure they want to take an appointment with an aspiring writer. I mean, I am the next (insert your favorite bestselling author here) …
“Now hold on just a minute bub!” The security guard grabbing the scruff of your collar isn’t amused.
OK, so maybe that didn’t go so well. I can just call them, can’t I? I am sure I can find the direct phone number for my Agent or Editor of choice. They will surely take my call, right? Let’s try it!
“Um Hello. Yes, I’d like to speak with Agent Superstar about my No Name Novel that will surely be on the NY Times Bestseller List with a little help.”
“I see, they aren’t available? Would I be able to speak with their assistant? How about another Agent at your firm? Oh, they don’t take calls from No Name Authors with No Name Novels? Hmph.” Click
That didn’t go so well either, did it. Should I move to New York and loiter outside the skyscrapers holding up a sign ‘Great Author, Will Write for Book Contract.’? Do people still ride elevators? I could just ride up and down until the right person steps into the car. Or maybe I can twitter bomb them, sending each line of my query and pitch in 140 character segments?!
Don’t try these, any of them. These are all tried and true shortcuts to publishing failure.
So where and when do those opportunities exist? How will I ever get in front of an agent or editor?
Let’s get serious. There are often structured opportunities to pitch at writer’s conferences. While there are many writer’s conferences that are focused on the craft of writing, most commercial writer’s conferences include one or more pitch sessions either in a pitch slam or appointment format (more on that later). Writer’s Conferences are certainly the best opportunity to pitch, as Agents and Editors attend specifically to scout new talent, network and hear about the newest trends in the industry, just like you! They are hoping to meet people, especially writers, and are hoping to hear a fresh but familiar voice; an interesting story, a great adventure, a book that will sell.
There are conferences throughout the year that vary in size, focus and geography. I have tried to compile a list of upcoming conferences along with other pitch opportunities here. Other pitch opportunities might include pitching appointments at fan focused conferences, Twitter Pitch Contests, or an occasional open call from an Agent or Editor. For every formal pitch opportunity we list you should assume that there is probably an informal opportunity as well. Most Agents and Editors will take a stand up pitch at a bar, but you shouldn’t assume they want to and it isn’t the best way to put your foot forward in the industry.
While we are trying to give you every opportunity, the focus of these posts are on preparing for a writer’s conference with a formal pitch situation.
Wow, there are so many!! How do I know which one is the best for me? If this is your first time out, start by asking around. Have any of your writer friends attended any of these conferences? What about your favorite authors? Many published authors continue to attend conferences to teach, speak about craft, network or even pitch new works themselves. They will often post about the conferences they have attended or plan to attend on their websites and blogs. Is there an agent you have been stalking? (we all do it) What conferences are they attending?
Let’s say there isn’t an obvious choice. Consider some of the following criteria:
Craft or Commercial – Most writer’s conferences lean either towards craft – character development, plot structures, world building, OR commercial – building your author platform, promoting your book, getting published. Some conferences try to cover both. If it isn’t obvious in the conference description look at the list of presenters. If there are a high percentage of Agents, Editors or Publishing Professionals presenting it is probably a more commercial conference. If mainly Authors and Educators presenting, it is probably more focused on craft.
Genre – Does this conference focus on the specific genre that you write, or is it broader? There are advantages to each. Just because your genre isn’t the focus of the conference, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attend. I know more than a handful of writers who have attended RWA (Romance Writers Association) conferences because they have some of the best events with high quality speakers. They might not have the best opportunities to pitch, but you could learn a lot.
Fan Conferences – It should be noted that there are some amazing conferences throughout the year that are not traditional writer’s conferences, but more fan and genre focused. Conferences like WorldCon, DragonCon, ComicCon and others are amazing events where writers and publishing pros gather to be with the readers and consumers of the media. There are often pitch opportunities at these events, but they are not the focus of the event and can often be smaller or less organized.
Conference Size – Are you looking for something small and intimate, where you might get more personal attention, or something larger that will attract a wider range of industry professionals?
Travel – Will you be going someplace exotic, or stuck in a hotel ballroom for three days? Maybe this conference is as much a vacation as it is work? Can you bring the family or are you on your own? Most conferences have a pretty intense schedule, trying to pack in as much as they can in just a few days. Consider the prep time before and recovery time after a conference as well.
Schedule – Ideally you should schedule to attend a conference a few months ahead of time. This will give you plenty of time to prepare. You may even get a discount by booking early. Watch those deadlines.
Cost / Benefit – Conferences are expensive, but if you make the most out of it you might learn a new skill, make an important contact or even find representation for your work. No one, not even Agents can afford to go to every conference. Make sure you are picking one or more that will give you the best bang for your buck.
Pitch Sessions – Is there a structured opportunity to pitch at the conference? Who will you get to pitch? Typically writer’s conferences have one of the following types of opportunities:
- Pitch Slams – A bunch (anywhere from 10-50+) agents and editors are spread out around a room. Writers que up in lines to meet with agents and are give 2-5 minutes to pitch.
- Pitch Appointments – Writer’s sign up for pitch appointments with one or more agents or editors. Pitch appointments are one on one, sometimes in a private room, but often not. Typically they last 10-15 minutes. At most conferences you will usually only get 1 to 3 pitch appointments.
- Pitch Workshops – There are a few conferences that are set up to focus specifically on pitching. At these conferences writers workshop their pitch, and ultimately their books with other writers of the same genre. There are usually multiple opportunities to pitch industry professionals at the sessions, but you may not know who you will be pitching until the event.
- Query Critiques – Many conferences offer query letter critiques. In these situations writers are asked to either send in their query and pages ahead of time or to bring them to the session. Agents will review the letters (and sometimes the first page of the novel) and provide direct feedback. Occasionally there will be an opportunity for a longer discussion about your book in these sessions, but usually not.
In most cases conferences have a separate sign up process and fee for Pitch Opportunities. These sessions fill up fast and require additional preparation. Make sure you sign up early and be sure that you sign up for the pitch session with your general conference admission.
ACTION ITEM: BOOK A CONFERENCE
Once you have decided on a conference, BOOK IT. Right now, open up a new window on your browser and BOOK your next conference.
Seriously, get to it. I’ll wait. When you finish, come on back.
Congratulations!! You’ve taken the first step. You have created an opportunity! Now, just to be sure, you signed up for a conference with a Pitch Session, right? AND you signed up for the Pitch Session too? Excellent!
Now I can just sit back and relax until I am ready to go to my conference and wow everyone there, right?
Nope, now the hard work begins.
Pull out a calendar, one you can write on, and count the days until your conference. On today’s date write ‘Great Pitch Step 1 – Complete!‘. Give yourself a sticker, if you are into that sort of thing. Now go to the first day of the Conference and write ‘Ready to Pitch’. Count the days between and write that number down on a Post It note.
Now for some higher math. We need to divide up our calendar into each of the next steps to a Great Pitch. Here is a suggestion on how to allocate your time to prepare your pitch. Let’s say you have 30 days from now until you pitch. Your calendar might look something like this:
- Step 1 – Create an Opportunity – Day 0
- Step 2 – What do I need to say? – Day 1-5
- Step 3 – Writing the Imperfect Pitch – Days 5-15
- Step 4 – Testing your Pitch – Days 10-15
- Step 5 – Rewrites, Rewrites, Rewrites – Days 15-27
- Step 6 – Who am I talking to? – Days 16-19 and Days 24-29
- Step 7 – Don’t just Practice Rehearse – Days 16-29
- Step 8 – Pitch Day – Day 30
- Step 9 – Follow up – Days 31-37
30 days might seem like a lot, but there is a ton of work to do. You will definitely need to commit some time every day to working on your pitch. Keep in mind, you may not realize it, but when you are working on your pitch you are also working on your book.
ACTION ITEM: MAP OUT YOUR CALENDAR
Pull out a calendar, hard copy or electronic and map out your goals for each day leading up to the Pitch. You might not understand each one yet, but commit them to paper. Consider this your personal training calendar up until the conference. Tack it up someplace where you have to see it, every day.
Look at that! We have barely started and you have already accomplished the first step, and arguably the hardest. You have mapped out a clear goal an created a series of action items that will improve your chances at success! Well done.
Now that we have created an opportunity, let’s get to work!