Pitching an Agent – Speed Dating in the Literary World

Pitching Agent.JPGThis past weekend, writers from throughout the region participated  in the Writing Workshop of Chicago – a well-run machine that teams up writers, authors and agents with a series of workshops, panel discussions and pitches. If you’ve never pitched an agent in person, let me explain the process… Dot a hotel conference room with a multitude of little round tables adorned with white linen tablecloths. Add two chairs to each table along with a lone lit candle placed in the center. OK, I’m making up the candle-part but you get the idea. It’s intimate.  Then add one of the 20 or so literary agents at each table, all looking at their smart phones wishing they were anywhere else.

Literally, anywhere.

As a writer partaking in the workshop, you are given the option of pitching your finished manuscript to any one of the attending agents. Paying for the opportunity to talk to an agent in the hope that they will ask you to send them your manuscript or a portion of it, seems a bit like a politician handing you $50, and asking for your vote. But with that said, I’m not at all above the idea of purchasing 10 minutes of precious one-on-one time with a literary agent.

And 10 minutes is exactly the time I got with each agent-purchase at this workshop. As the day continued, I moved around the pitch room like a chess piece looking to topple the King. While I have never participated in speed-dating, I have sat through enough rom-coms to know that this form of pitching an agent is similar to speed-dating, in that you have a short window of time to capture someone’s heart. Only this time, you want them to fall in love with your book.

And the pitching begins…

9:30am                 Agent #1

Fortunately, my very first pitch of the day is with an agent that represents solely Young Adult and Children’s Books. I had been struggling with labeling the genre of my book because while the narrator of CHASING CRAZY is a youngster, the theme is more adult in nature, so labeling it as Young Adult, seemed off. But the Internet told me that my book was YA, and if the Internet says that, it must be true.

But after hearing my initial introduction of CHASING CRAZY, Agent #1 scrunches up her face in thought, and informs me that perhaps I have mislabeled the genre of my book. So while she takes a polite pass on my work, her bit of wisdom is invaluable to me, and certainly worth the investment.

And the buzzer…

9:50am                 Scout #1

A Literary Scout is different from an agent in that their job is to find promising writers for the agents back home. I like the idea of someone who is looking out for others, and I’m looking forward to meeting Scout #1. Maybe it’s the word, Scout, since I love TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but I digress.

With my newfound knowledge that CHASING CRAZY is now Women’s Lit, and Upmarket Fiction (Is my book YA? Hell no!), I present my manuscript with a renewed sense of confidence in knowing who the heck my audience is. Agents do not want to hear, “My book is perfect for everyone!” It’s not. Scout #1 not only listens to my pitch, she asks questions and seems genuinely interested – not looking at her phone even once. At the end of our 10 minute date, I’m asked to send my manuscript to a particular agent at her agency, along with a note that I come highly recommended by her. OK, I added the “highly” but she didn’t say I couldn’t say “highly.”

So far so good. And the bell…

10:50am               Agent #2

With this agent, I did something a little different. Writers at this workshop had an option of purchasing two allotments of time with any agent, meaning that they could buy 20 minutes of time. Not having gone through this process before, this seemed intriguing to me along with being a bit dangerous. I had this vision of the conversation starting with the agent saying, “Oh, your story takes place in 1970? Yeah, I hate stories set in the 70s,” I would be dead in the water, and we would both spend the next 15 minutes discussing the 40 degree weather in Chicago – even though its mid-May (Which, if you’re not familiar with Chicago, is quite normal).

But I shook off this fear and bought my 20 minutes with this rock star of the literary world. Not only do we hit it off, we plow through the 20 minutes like we’re having drinks together at the bar (which I would prefer). As the buzzer goes off, I leave with a request for viewing my whole manuscript.

Bingo! As I soak in the awesomeness of this moment, the next writer comes along and shoves me out of my chair.

4:50pm                 Agent #3

Believe it or not, I actually requested the last slot of the day with this agent – my theory being, that if our date, I mean meeting, went along swimmingly, the agent wouldn’t care when the 10 minute bell went off, and we would simply keep talking and talking like BFFs. Maybe get a drink at the bar.

She cared.

I can now tell you to never request the last time slot of the day for pitching an agent. Their eyes slowly glaze over as the morning turns into day, which crawls into the afternoon. While she smiled at the appropriate times, and requested that I send her the first 20 pages of my manuscript, I don’t think she would have remembered me if we ran into each other 30 seconds later in the hallway.

She was done.

So… if you are a writer looking for a literary agent, and you have the opportunity to purchase pitching time, buy away. And keep in mind that it’s not just about the agent liking you, and wanting to represent your work – it’s a two-way street. You have to like them as well. Just relax and have fun.

But don’t ask for the last time slot!

Heidi McCrary