How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

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12 Responses to “How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents”

  1. Tita Beal Says:

    Thanks for the reality in wetware world – cut straight to website, blog, links, Youtube, email lists, offers!

    I agree writing is the focus, not the publishing. I survived a really horrendous situation by writing a memoir then turning it into a play that I’m peddling (earlier drafts won Honorable Mention and two Finalist placements in major contests with more than 500 – and one with 1,000 – submissions so the revised script may find a stage.

    Thanks for the human voice. I took a workshop on how to pitch. 24 participants each with really interesting books. Real live editors and agents submitted themselves to our practice pitches and asked for proposals from some of us. But none of the 24 even got a response – except one who, after she got a rejection email and she asked a question, the editor wrote back that she couldn’t open the file.

  2. andyrossagency Says:

    Thanks, Tita, and I’m glad to hear that your memoir is getting recognition (even if in a new literary form). A lot of people over-prepare for these pitches. And the classes on pitching can often make writers more nervous. I prefer just to have a conversation about a writer’s work. When writers declaim their pitch, as if from a script, it sends the message that they are insecure about their writing.

    • Tita Beal Says:

      Yes. The poor agents and editors who volunteered themselves – I realized later I launched into the carefully edited, revised pitch without acknowledging the person across the table from me as a fellow human being. I could have been speed-speaking to an audience. Got an offer to send the proposal, but like the other 24 in the workshop, never heard another peep.

  3. Heather Villa (@HeatherVilla1) Says:

    Hi Andy,

    I always look forward to your posts. Thank you.

    This success of pitch session depends on how an agent and author handle the unexpected.

    Recently, I pitched an agent my novel and this is what happened, moments following my pitch.

    On the other side of a glass window I noticed my mother (also a conference attendee) as she innocently walked right past the very room where I sat with an agent.

    The agent said, “Oh, maybe she’s my next appointment.”

    “I don’t think so. That’s my mom,” I said without any hesitation.

    “Invite her on in here,” the agent said.

    “Um..really?”

    “Oh, sure.”

    The three of us stood around talking like it was perfectly normal to invite one’s mother to a pitch session.

    Crazy, right?

    But I wouldn’t change a thing.

    The moment was real, and one I’ll never forget.

    From,

    Heather Villa

  4. andyrossagency Says:

    Having a nice relaxed pitch session is always a pleasure for me. It’s better for me to evaluate material back at the office.

  5. damarisyoung Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article and particularly loved the quote by Ann Lamott at the end!

  6. Mimi Albert Says:

    G

  7. ladyliterology Says:

    This was an interesting insight into the other side of pitching.

    Having just received a rejection letter from you (it was so brief it pinched more than stung, so thank you…), I wanted to comment on the anxiety-inducing pitch.

    As a writer, what drives me to pitch, and continue pitching, is the burning belief in and love of what I do. It seems to numb the other senses as I’m going through the process. This probably mutes the humiliation a bit, as the pitch is akin to business-like begging.

    The thing about existing in a stage of being unpublished, especially when you have a work that you believe in wholeheartedly, is that it can eat at you and drive you and keep you up all night working. You know that if ever you should succeed, it will have all been worth it.

    So, if I do get the chance to pitch a book to you in person, watch out, because I’ll pitch you the pitchiest pitch you’ve ever been pitched…!

    And while I have your attention, come check out my blog at http://www.droolanddragons.com. (See what I did there?)

  8. Gerard Pizarro Says:

    Thanks Andy. I posted this article on our SF Writers Meetup: http://www.meetup.com/sanfranciscowriters-com/events/172354522/. Cheers, Gerard

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