Deciding Who to Pitch To at a Writing Conference

It’s almost time for the annual Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference in Austin (June 27 through the 29th this year). I’ve signed up have a 10-minute consultation with three of the agents who will be attending. All Spring, as new editors and agents were booked to attend the conference, the Writers’ League posted information about them on their website, which allowed the attendees to begin making decisions about who to pitch their novels to at the conference.

Like many attendees, I paid extra to have private consultations with some of the agents. Each attendee (if they signed up before a certain date) was guaranteed a free consultation with one agent, but we were able to purchase extra consultations for $50 each. Once their roster of agents and editors was finalized, the WLT gave us an opportunity to select the one (or ones) we would most like to meet with. We had a couple of weeks to submit a list all of the agents and editors, ranking them by preference. They then wrestled with trying to make several hundred attendees happy by giving them their choices (or as close as possible to their preferred choices). I had paid for two extra consultations, so I started looking through the WLT website to get a basic impression of each of them. There were fifteen agents and eight editors to choose from. I’m primarily attending this year’s conference to pitch a single book, my thriller, The Jagged Man. My understanding is that editors rarely ever acquire a book through the author, almost always through an agent, so I didn’t intend to have a consultation with any of the editors. If I happen to end up in a conversation with any of them, of course, I’ll see what I can find out about the state of the market, and what they like to see in a submitted manuscript, but I don’t intend to actively pitch books to any of them.

Ranking the agents was easy in some respects, but difficult in others. I had the 2014 Writer’s Market, and the 2013 and 2014 Guide to Literary Agents, so I started by looking each of them up (or their agencies, at least). Four of the fifteen agencies weren’t listed in the 2013 guide, but two of those agencies were listed in the 2014 guide. Double marks against the two which weren’t in either year’s edition. The Writer’s Market has a very slim listing of agents, and none of the four were listed in it, but in fairness, most of the rest weren’t either.

The agents’ websites were the next stop. One of them was eliminated almost immediately. The website was very unprofessional. It was a free site, hosted on Tripod, filled with ads (not for the agency). The site consisted of four poorly created pages, in which the owner referred to the agency as a “start-up,” but said it was founded in 2007. If you’re still a start-up after seven years, you’re doing something wrong. One of the pages was also flagged by McAfee as containing “dangerous” content (usually links to phishing sites or Trojan horses). No thanks. [Just out of curiosity, I went back to the WLT’s page of agents yesterday, and clicked on the link to the same agency a minute ago. The link had been changed. The agency now has a new website, which looks much better on the surface, but still contained sloppy content (like “For Project That Don’t Meet Our Requirement Now”). They also seemed to have partnered with a publishing house, which offers “platform acceleration” (which I interpreted to mean SEO for a fee). For me, the answer was still, no thanks.] It all seemed too iffy, so I put this agent at the bottom of my list, even below the editors.

The Jagged Man is an adult thriller, so I next eliminated two categories, any agents who only handled books written for children or YA or MG wouldn’t be interested, and agents who only dealt with non-fiction also (although I would revisit the non-fiction agents later for another reason). Two of the agents were specifically dealing (according to their bios), only with various forms of non-fiction, and one of them was only looking for YA or MG. Those three drifted down to the bottom of my agents list. There is no point in pitching a thriller to an agent who has no interest in representing that genre. I now only had eleven agents to choose from.

I had one other eliminator that had nothing to do with their bios, but concerned the agency they worked for. I had already queried (sometimes based on last year’s pitches at WLT 2013) some agents or agencies who were on the list again this year. I had already pitched and queried If a Butterfly and Jagged Man to agents at two of the agencies, and had promised to query Jagged Man to the owner of a third agency that had an agent coming to this year’s conference. I wouldn’t try to pitch those three agents, so I only had eight more to look at.

Next, I looked specifically for the word thriller. Two of these eight agents did specifically mention wanting thrillers in their bios, so they floated to the top of the list. Two of the other agents mentioned liking “high concept novels,” and “genre style plotting and literary quality writing.” They fell into place at three and four. I honestly don’t remember how I chose one over the other, they were so close. If I saw other elements in any of the other agents’ bios that intrigued me (length of experience, well-respected agencies, or phrases like “drawn to writers who are formally inventive,” “push boundaries,” and “an eclectic list of books”), they fell next in line.

I finished ranking them, putting almost all of the agents at the top of the list, followed by the editors and then the one lone agent that I knew I would never query on my own anyway.

A little over a week ago I received the notification of my assigned consultations. They gave me my top three picks, although I would certainly have been happy with Number Four as well. Does that mean I will only talk to those three at the conference? No. These three will be expecting me, and will have slotted ten minutes of time for me. The others I will pitch during Saturday evening’s cocktail reception, or when I can catch their attention for a few minutes during the day.

Is mine a perfect system? I seriously doubt it, but most of what we do (in trying to market ourselves and our work) is a crap shoot anyway, right?

I have one other tip for pitching at conferences. After you’ve researched ten or fifteen or even twenty individuals, it’s very difficult to remember who was interested in what genre, or other information you might need when you introduce yourself, or even who they are. You wouldn’t want to walk up to Ms. Smith, and call her Ms. Jones, right? I prepare a cheat sheet before I leave for the conference. It looks like this.

An agent cheat sheet

A sample cheat sheet to help you spot agents at a writing conference

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Names and faces have obviously been changed, but each agent’s name is color-coded to remind me which book I’m pitching. Their picture reminds me who they are. The green stands for agents who might be interested in my thriller, the blue stands for people I might pitch a proposal to for my non-fiction travel book, and the pink is an agent I thought might be interested in either (and I’ll decide which one to pitch to them probably at the last second).

To paraphrase Lionel Barrymore, “Writing is easy. Pitching is hard.”

How do you feel about the idea of pitching a book? How do you approach the process?

Michael

About michaelsirois

Just a retired educator taking a stab at the Great American Novel.
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4 Responses to Deciding Who to Pitch To at a Writing Conference

  1. A. B. Davis says:

    This was helpful. Thank you.

  2. Syd says:

    Aloha, I’m sending you a message in a bottle:

    I am debating on going to this conference since the Romance Conference in NY is sold out for this summer.

    Did you find anyone I could pitch on your list from the genre of Romance?
    (I am looking for an agent. I have 7 completed novels on Amazon.)
    And, am I too late to even get anyone left, that is not fully booked at this late stage?

    My other option is the Writer’s Digest Conference in NY this summer. I’m teetering towards that one.

    Living in Hawaii, I just hate to travel that far. I was looking for a good conference, close to home but worthy of my genre.

    I am anxious to hear your advice as it’s keeping me up researching conferences.

    My issue, I do not want to wait ’till next year for a conference. I have this open window of time to pitch my series now.

    Mahalo

    • Hi, Syd –
      This will be my fifth year to attend a WLT Conference, and I have always benefited from the talks, breakout sessions, and the ability to talk directly to agents and editors. There have always been a dozen or more agents and editors at the conference. This year there will be 19 agents and 6 editors, from agencies and publishing houses big and small. Here’s a link to the conference page.

      http://www.writersleague.org/38/Conference

      Most of the agents represent multiple genres, but several mention romance in the blurb WLT has provided for each person. Just at a glance, there are several who mention romance or women’s fiction. I would look especially at Susanna Einstein, Beth Miller, Jessica Papin, and Monika Woods, but don’t discount the others. There’s a Q&A with many of the agents (linked from their blurb) that can often reveal more about their likes. Here’s a link to this year’s Featured Agents page.

      http://www.writersleague.org/agents

      The featured editors also have a page, and several of them had links to Q&A’s.

      http://www.writersleague.org/FeaturedEditors

      It’s not too late to register, but I would act quickly. Hope you decide to come. It’s a great conference.

      Michael

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