Using writing conferences to sell your book
Querying novels via email isn’t fun, but it can be productive if you’re patient. Pitching in person is an entirely different experience, and we mean that in the best way possible. Meeting face-to-face gives writers a competitive edge over people who only interact with agents over email—provided you do so in a proper venue!
We know it’s nerve-wracking to sell yourself in person and email is less intimidating, but email works less often because it’s less personal. Agents are on the lookout for excellent writing, but your personality and business acumen weigh into their decision just as heavily. An in-person interaction goes a lot further to establish your fit.
Why Does In-Person Pitching Give Writers an Edge?
Communication is 80% non-verbal. The few minutes you get in front of an agent gives you a better opportunity to demonstrate positive qualities than an email.
If you’re a solid speaker, you’ll have an easier time getting press engagements on podcasts, vlogs, and other media. Demonstrating an understanding of the pitching process and your novel's competitive landscape shows a degree of business acumen that makes you a more attractive client. Showing grace and resilience when facing critique demonstrates that you won’t fall to pieces the first time you receive a negative review.
There are hundreds of thousands of well-written books in the world—but they only sell if people know about them. The marketing needed to launch a book properly requires a lot of effort and tenacity on the author's part.
When to Pitch Your Novel
Non-fiction writers have different rules than fiction writers. Non-fiction works—except for memoirs—do not need to be complete at the time of pitching. You should have a full synopsis, a marketing plan, and two to three sample chapters polished and ready to submit.
Memoirs and fiction novels must be entirely written and polished before pitching. Do not assume you'll have a year to submit your novel to an agent. You are far more likely to get a positive response if you submit the requested material immediately after pitching. Wait too long, and they won't remember you. You'll have the same chance as a query email.
In-person pitches are a fantastic chance at a first impression. Don’t throw it away on a half-finished book.
Bonus Materials: The Marketing Plan
Many agents want to see a marketing plan from nonfiction writers, but fiction writers can also benefit from a fully developed marketing plan. Authors are responsible for the vast majority of their marketing. Showing that you’re willing to dig in and understand your market is a great sign that you’ll also do what you can to advertise your novel.
A marketing plan should include:
- Target demographic research
- Similar novels and why they were successful
- Social media
- Bonus Content - Incentives for reader participation in email lists, street teams, etc.
- Launch Plan/Media Outreach Campaign
- Paid Advertising
- Live Events
- Promo Materials
- Book Launch Team
We’ve watched agents transform from vaguely interested to salivating at the mention of a marketing plan. The reaction amplifies if you have a solid online following in your target demographic. Authors should start marketing well before their first book goes to market. If you can accumulate more than 50,000 followers on a platform, marketing your book will be much easier.
Where to Pitch Your Novel In Person
Many writers conferences facilitate one-on-one pitches with agents and acquisition editors. Regional, state, and national events are great places to network with other authors and agents. Even smaller conferences will attract one or two agents representing a larger agency.
Before the conference, you will usually get the option to opt into a pitch session. Usually, these sessions are free. Some conferences will offer additional blocks of time (for a fee) to authors who have a long list of agents they would like to pitch to. Personally, I think this makes sense for specialized conferences that will draw several agents that sell your genre.
For regional conferences that span multiple genres, one pitch session may be enough.
Research the agents scheduled to attend and determine who would be a good fit (prioritize the people who fit squarely in your wheelhouse). If you have a 30-minute block and get five minutes with each agent, you’ll need to factor in the time you’ll spend standing in line. Usually, you’ll speak with two to three people in a 30-minute block. If it’s an hour block, assume you’ll get to speak with 4-6 agents.
Don’t assume you’ll get more than your allotted five minutes. In fact, assume it will go shorter if you don’t have a solid pitch.
The Perfect Pitch
A good pitch has an agent sitting on the edge of their seat. It should quickly summarize why we care about your character. That means finding a way to make their struggle compelling.
Your pitch should not be a dry description of your main character. You should boil down the essence of your book into one to two sentences. They should identify your protagonist, the inciting incident (the thing that makes them go on their heroic journey), the big thing they need to do, and the antagonist.
The structure of your pitch should be:
- Quick “hi, how are you?” introduction.
- Your book’s genre and length and perhaps a similar book.
- Your logline.
- Pause and gauge interest. If they don’t interrupt you, give a few more details.
It’s not easy to pack a punch into one or two sentences, but the movie industry has it figured out. Study movie loglines, pick some that you like, and then evaluate why you like them. Apply those same attributes to your own pitch.
Some examples of loglines that concisely describe the movie’s theme:
“A New York City cop travels to Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife but learns she’s been taken hostage by a terrorist in a skyscraper — and he struggles alone to save her.” — Die Hard
“A young African-American visits his white girlfriend's parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.” — Get Out
“In a decimated near-future a lone family must try to survive ferocious alien creatures who hunt using acute hearing.” — A Quiet Place
“A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures then must retrace their steps in order to find him..” — The Hangover
Note that none of these examples named the protagonist or the antagonist. They focused on who they were and why they were motivated. The point of a pitch is to create as much interest in your book as possible. You want to give just enough information that the agent requests more information, or, even better, the manuscript.
In our recent article, we gave an example query letter. Query letters allow you more time to flesh out the main character and their motivations. It looked like this:
Dottie Weathersfield recently celebrated her 80th birthday. Instead of receiving her requested pair of custom-bedazzled loafers, her imperious niece forced her to either accept the “gift” of a live-in home care aid or a one-way ticket to Trembling Acres Retirement Home. Dottie never married because she couldn’t stomach being told what to do. Who knew one lousy fender bender in the post office parking lot would undo a lifetime of personal freedom?
When Dottie hears Annabelle Jackson, the closest thing to a daughter she’s ever had, disappeared from her place of work under mysterious circumstances, she leaps into action. Dottie knows the details of the crime hold too much in common with a string of tragedies fifty years prior to be a coincidence. Between her suspended license and a home care aid who acts like a mother hen, Dottie must find a way to give her caregivers the slip and find Annabelle before time runs out.
Here’s how we would boil it down into a logline:
Between her suspended license and a home care aid who acts like a mother hen, a feisty octagenarian must find a way to give her caregivers the slip and find her adopted daughter before time runs out.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Pitching
The majority of this advice should be common sense, but we’re providing it for a reason. After several networking parties and agent panels, we’ve discovered it’s best to cover all the bases.
Do take advantage of pitch practice and coaching sessions
Writing conferences often provide pitch coaching sessions. These are networking events with seasoned writers who have been through the process successfully themselves. They can offer an objective eye and tell you whether your pitch has enough punch.
Do your research before your pitch sessions
Writer conferences publicize the names of agents attending prior to the convention. Don’t just rely on their very short bio. Go to their agency’s website and research what the agency covers. Don’t go overboard, though. If you start talking about their kids or dogs, it’s just creepy.
Don’t wear a costume
We’ve seen this happen, and it isn’t pretty. A children’s book author or writer with an anthropomorphic character decides to depart from convention and make a memorable impression. Unfortunately, the impression is memorable for the wrong reasons. What strikes the author as clever will strike many other people as unnerving.
Do attend agent Q&A sessions
Take advantage of this opportunity to get to know prospective agents better. Their bio may say they’re interested in historical fiction, but they may say the opposite when asked. Go with what they say in front of a crowd. The converse will be true. You’ll likely find a few promising prospects you ruled out through your research.
Do dress professionally
Treat your pitch session like an interview. If you want to be taken seriously, show that you’re taking the process seriously.
Do be courteous before jumping straight into your pitch
Agents are human, too. They’ve traveled to this event, miss their families, and are probably tired. Give them a quick, “How are you?” and actually listen before jumping into your pitch.
Don’t be nervous
This may be unavoidable, but do your best to stay calm. It’s easier to deliver a pitch and answer questions if you can keep a cool head. If you can’t, that’s okay. Agents understand this is a big moment for you.
Do write down what they want from you on something other than their business card
Bring a pad of paper with you to your pitches. When an agent hands their business card to you, write in your notebook what they’ve asked you for (one chapter, the full manuscript, a synopsis, your marketing plan, etc.). Some people get offended when you write all over their business cards.
Don’t pitch to them in the bathroom
Agents typically are amenable to a quick pitch that’s unscheduled if you bump into them at a conference. Ask them if it’s okay first and respect them if they say no. And for heaven’s sake, don’t follow them into the bathroom and try to hand them a manuscript under a stall.
Do respect their time if they’re not interested
If you give your pitch and the agent tells you it’s not what they’re looking for, don’t try to talk them into changing their mind. It’s not going to work, and you’re wasting time you could be speaking with someone who is looking for your book. Be professional and practical about rejection.
The Follow Up Email
If you get the thrilling request for a sample of your content, structure it like you would a normal query with the exception of the introduction. In the first sentence, tell them where you met them and what they asked for. For example:
Thank you so much for your time at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association pitch block. I attached my manuscript, the synopsis, and my marketing plan for your review.
Then continue on to give a quick introduction of your novel.
We’ve heard rumors that it’s perfectly acceptable to wait two months or a year after pitching to submit your finished novel. This isn’t a good idea for fiction writers. Try to have your novel in great condition before you pitch so your in-person interaction comes to mind when you submit your content. It’s best to make the most of the advantage you gained by doing the hard work of pitching in person.
We wish you the best of luck!