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Publishing U: How Do I Pitch an Agent at a Writers’ Conference?

Publishing UOur readers are often curious about the process of writing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts! In the eighth post of our Publishing U series, literary agent Joanna MacKenzie offers practical advice on meeting with agents and editors at writers’ conferences, and considers the value of honing your pitch to perfection.


Joanna MacKenzie: It’s that time of year again: the start of conference season. The weather is warming up (sort of) and our schedule is filling up with trips to various writers’ conferences. And I can’t wait. Just like you’ve been in your office all winter writing, we’ve been glued to our phones and computers—and I, for one, am itching to get out from behind my desk and mingle.

It’s that quest for the next great read
that brings us to writers’ conferences.

Joanna MacKenzieFor an agent, nothing beats the thrill of discovery. That’s what we call that feeling in our office: that moment when you read the first pages of a submission and know you have something special in your hands. It’s that quest for the next great read that brings us to writers’ conferences. We come with the hope that we will meet our next star client and find our next bestseller.

And it all starts with the pitch appointment.

Lots of conferences offer attendees the opportunity for face time with editors and agents to pitch their work, but the key is to use this time wisely. I polled the team at Browne & Miller Literary Associates to come up with a few tips on how to make the most of your pitch appointments. Here’s some advice about how best to prepare:

Be Ready. If your manuscript isn’t finished, don’t pitch it. I know, I know, there’s something to be said for practice, but when an agent wants to look at a manuscript, we want it right away. The ever-changing publishing marketplace waits for no one!

Know Your Stuff. I love it when a writer knows the market and can tell me what they’ve written, how long it is, and where it fits. For example, “Deep Deception is a 90,000 word thriller in the vein of Tana French or Paula Hawkins.”

Know Who You’re Pitching. Everyone’s time is valuable, so use yours wisely. Make sure the agent you’re pitching represents the type of work you do. (Browne & Miller, for example, doesn’t handle children’s books.)

Pitch Perfect. After writing an entire manuscript, it can feel daunting to whittle it down to a few sentences, but you owe it to yourself to spend quality time crafting a quality pitch. Your manuscript will thank you. I think it’s important to write both a one-line (often called “a tag line”) and extended (think back jacket copy) pitch for your project. Note that I’m not talking about a description, but a pitch. The difference? A description tells me what happens in the story, a pitch makes me want to read it. Stuck on where to start? Grab your favorite books off the shelf and read their back covers—those pitches drew you in, right?

Practice. It’s OK to be nervous. We get it. Authors aren’t asked to talk about their books all that often, but practicing will help. Grab a friend and read your pitch out loud to them until you know it like the back of your hand. (It’s OK to bring notes to an appointment, but confidence speaks volumes.) A mirror works, too.

Anticipate. Pitch appointments can last between 2 and even as much as 10 minutes. How are you going to fill the time? If an agent likes your pitch, chances are they’ll have some follow-up questions for you. It’s good to have your answers ready. FAQs include: How long have you been writing? Do you belong to any critique groups? Where did you get this idea?

Don’t Forget About You. Sure, you’re taking a pitch appointment with the hope of selling your book, but how you present yourself matters, too. This is, after all, a business relationship. Remember to dress the part and smile.

Hope to see you at a conference soon!

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Joanna MacKenzie is an Agent with Browne & Miller Literary Associates in Chicago. She’s currently looking for character driven thrillers for both the adult and YA market and YA stories about the relationships that change lives forever. Follow her on twitter @joannamackenzie



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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