Do pitches really matter? Three questions with Chuck Sambuchino!

I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck Sambuchino at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference this year and he has been gracious enough to give NovelPitch a few minutes of his time. Granted, it took every drink ticket I could scrounge, but his insights are worth it.

Chuck is a busy guy. He works for Writer’s Digest Publishing, his Guide to Literary Agents is one of the biggest blogs in publishing (you should be following it) and he is an accomplished author. Not many writers can boast releasing three books in the same month, but this September he is celebrating the release of 3 new books: the 2016 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS, the 2016 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, and his new humor gift book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Ten Speed Press / Random House). He loves meeting writers and helping them get published. He hates clowns and garden gnomes.

Instead of three wishes, NovelPitch got three questions with Chuck.

NP. Do pitches really matter? What is the advantage of pitching an Agent or Editor over the traditional query route?

CS. The advantage is that you get to sit in front of an agent and let them put a friendly face to a name. It isn’t just the agent reading a cold letter — you get to engage in a valuable conversation. Talking about your book in person with an agent is great, but I’ve long said that just as valuable is what you say when you don’t pitch. If you can make the agent laugh, or chit-chat about a TV show that you both like, they will smile and remember you later. When you send the requested works to them, they’ll remember the pleasant conversation and actively hope your writing has something great.

Put yourself in an agent’s shoes with me for a moment, and we’ll examine an example real quick. Let’s say you’re a writer who has a big poetry blog. Every day, you get 15 cold emails that come in and say “Hi, please read my poetry for consideration of putting it on your big poetry blog.” You get those 15 cold emails day in and day out from countless people you don’t know and have never met. Then you go to a conference and have a sit-down with a poet. You have a nice conversation about writing and poetry. Then that poet writes you a few days later and says “Was great to meet you the other day! I am attaching some of my poetry here. Thanks for considering some of it for your blog.” I’m guessing that if you had a good conversation with that writer, you are going to give their work a longer consideration than an average cold submission — whether that longer look is based in true interest in the work, or just a feeling of obligation because you’ve met in person and enjoyed their company (i.e., instead of looking for a reason to say no, you’re looking for a reason to enjoy the writing and read on). If you show yourself to be a capable, passionate writer who has a handle on their book project and the pitch, that will register with an agent, consciously or subconsciously.

There is always going to be a percentage of agents out there who hate in-person pitches and speak out against the process, but the process does work. I myself found my own agent at a conference. After the recent Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC in August 2015, one agent and one editor who participated in the pitch slam both emailed within a week to tell me they found clients already. That was just after one week. A few years ago, I was moderating a huge panel of 12 agents at the San Francisco Writers Conference. I turned to the 6 agents on my right and asked all the agents who had found a client through a past SF conference in the past to raise their hands. All 6 raised their hands. That was a 100% success rate, and I only asked them about finding a past client at that specific SF event.

NP. You have the opportunity to attend many different pitching events throughout the year. Which events would you consider to be the ‘best’ opportunity for an aspiring author to improve their chances at finding a Literary Agent, and Why?

CS. Good question. When considering which event to attend to pitch agents, the two things I would look for, if I were in the writer’s shoes is: 1) how many agents will be present who represent my genre/category, and therefore would be an appropriate fit? And 2) how many of them seem to be actively building their client list? If one of your main goals at a conference is indeed pitching, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to attend an event where there are no agents (or editors) there who rep your type of book. By the way, I’ll be speaking soon at conferences (with agents) in Los Angeles, San Diego, New England, Houston, Florida, Atlanta and more. Find more information here.

NP. At pitch slams and similar events Literary Agents might hear up to 100 pitches in a single day. If you could give every author who pitches one tip on how to rise above the noise, what would it be?

CS. A good one-sentence hook or “X meets Y” can be effective. Like for example, if you start your pitch out by saying “It’s basically Die Hard on a space station,” then if an agent likes that hook line, they can remember that and not any more of the pitch, and still walk away thinking positively of the meeting.

After the recent WDC15 Conference, I approached a fiction agent and asked him how the pitches went. He said “Fine. It’s hard to tell until you see the writing, of course. But a few pitches sounded really interesting, especially [example example].” I won’t share the specifics of the example because that would be giving away the writer’s really good hook, but the point was this agent was impressed by the writer’s one-sentence summary of the hook/plot. If you have a really high-concept plot, such as a vampire who decides to be a vegetarian, or a disgruntled former president who decides to assassinate the current president, then a concise hook line alone can get an agent’s mind going because it’s short, sweet, and easy to remember amid all the pitches of the day.

If your book is not high-concept and cannot be explained quickly/easily, then my best advice, besides avoidance of a sprawling pitch, is to chat the agent up personally and just be warm and likable. Again, that will register with them. If they smile and like you as a person, they will want your work to be awesome later, and give it a longer look.

People who want to contact me can find info on my website, or reach out to me through Twitter. Thanks!

NP. And THANK YOU Chuck!

Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (fall 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.

Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM (2012) and GET A LITERARY AGENT (Jan. 2015).

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