Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make When Pitching Literary Agents
I've been fortunate to meet agents at writers' conferences and through workshops. I've also been through the query trenches, from cold querying agents to participating in Twitter contests and responding to manuscript requests. I'm still in the query trenches, but I've learned a few things along the way.
Here are the top mistakes I've seen writers make when pitching literary agents. These are either things I've witnessed myself in conferences, heard agents complain about, or heard writers admit in online forums.
1. Read from a script/piece of paper
A face to face meeting is a chance to make a human connection with a literary agent. If you're reading from note cards, you're missing that chance.
I get it - this is a big deal, you want to represent your books, and you're nervous. But memorize your pitch. Practice at home. Practice with other writers. Reread your pitch while you're waiting to meet the agent.
When you've got your three minutes or ten minutes with them, look them in the eye and talk to them like a normal person. It really does make a difference.
2. Look around/act distracted
If you find yourself looking around at other conversations or feeling jealous that the guy behind you seems to be having a great conversation with the agent who didn't ask you for pages, that can sting.
Pitching sessions can be very competitive, and that can get in your head.
If you're in a big room it's natural for the commotion to distract you. Try to block it out and focus on the person behind the table.
Maybe you haven't gotten the results you've wanted from another agent, but you aren't going to get them from this agent if you can't stay present in the moment. So relax, breathe, and try to put everyone else in the room out of your mind while you're meeting with a literary agent.
3. Pitch literary agents something outside their genre
If you pitch an agent something they don't represent, you're wasting time you could spend pitching an agent who is open to your projects.
Do your research before the conference to find out who is there, what they represent, and who appeals to you. Make a tiered list and focus on the people you must pitch first. If you don't get to meet with everyone, you can always cold query.
What if you don't get to choose who to talk to, or if an agent right off the bat says they're not looking for projects like yours, but you've still got two minutes with them? You can either thank them, shake their hand, and walk away (best when you can get in line to speak with another agent) or you can pivot. Ask them to recommend other literary agents at their agency if they don't represent your genre. Or ask them to critique your pitch or first page so you can strengthen it.
Even if someone isn't a great match for your book, they can offer you valuable feedback.
4. Not pitch the plot
Recently, I helped a fellow writer polish her pitch. Well, tried to help. She was writing a YA book about .... well, I'm not sure, because her elevator pitch contained said something like "My book blends genres, but it conforms to the strengths of teen fiction. It features a unique spiral story structure where two timelines showing overlapping narrators warp together..."
No book blends so many genres that they cannot be named.
During pitch sessions, literary agents are doing a lot of active listening to determine what your book is about, if it's in their wheelhouse, and if it meets their needs. Don't make their job more difficult by not giving them the information they need to decide if they want pages. Just pitch them on your book's plot and throw in comps and genres that clarify what you're written, not obfuscate it.
I've been guilty of this one. I get it, the agents get it, you're nervous ... however, any time you get to talk to an agent, you get to receive valuable feedback about your work.
That feedback might not be what you expect -- and it's not going to be an on-the-spot offer of representation -- but you'll never get to the feedback if you ramble on.
Stick with your pitch to avoid the nervous chatter. Deliver your pitch with confidence (because you practiced it), then allow the agent to respond. They might ask a question or offer a suggestion. They might express interest, or ask you why you wrote the story.
Whatever they give you tells you something you can use in your next pitch.
If they're not understanding your hook, you might need better comp titles or a stronger elevator pitch. If you ramble on until the timer ends, you'll never get to the valuable feedback that will help you perfect your pitch.
6. Be attached to a specific outcome, i.e. representation
Spoiler alert: No agent is going to hear your pitch, then offer you representation on the spot. Disappointing, right? Actually I find it freeing.
When you go into a pitch appointment with your heart set on one particular outcome, then it's an automatic failure if you don't get that outcome - whether it's representation or a request for your first three chapters.
If you go into the session with an openness to the outcome and a willingness to present the best pitch you can, then you automatically win at pitching - and any advice or praise the agent passes along is bonus.
7. Take it personally
Some agents aren't going to want to read your book. Some might have real talk about the industry that bursts a bubble for you -- especially if you're a nonfiction author with no platform, or a SFF author pitching a 150,000 word debut novel.
It can be soul crushing to hear that no one wants your nonfiction or overly-long book. It can be soul crushing to get one request for a first chapter if your friend received three full manuscript requests.
The difficult work of being a writer is to not take the setbacks personally.
Your book may not have been right for an agent, but that's your book. It's not you.
PLEASE, don't let one agent's rejection or hard truth affect you personally, and don't let a bad appointment turn you off of agents. Several writers left the Writer's Digest Conference I went to over the fall because their pitch sessions didn't return the results they hoped for. They took the rejection personally, and they close themselves off from learning as a result.
Writing is getting rejected and continuing onward. It is a journey. Be committed to it, be humble, be willing to learn, and more of all -- show up and do the work!