Agents Share Conference Tips

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Community

In less than two weeks, I will be attending the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar (Nov. 1 & 2) in New York City. I attended a Backspace conference once before–it’s actually where I first met my agent–and loved it. A newbie writer at the time, I appreciated the practical, no-nonsense advice I got on how to navigate the publishing process.

The Backspace Agent-Author Seminar is a great opportunity for writers to get feedback from agents about their work, but with this there can also be much stress and anxiety. I’ve pitched at conferences before (not this particular conference, but others similar to it) and while I always came out of those experiences wiser than when I went in, it would have been nice to learn some of those things before the actual conference.

Which brings me to this article. I’ve reached out to the agents attending the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar and asked them to share their best tips and advice, which I now share with you. Forget taking advice from writers who’ve “been there, done that,” today you’ll getting the information straight from the people who know the drill.

As you’ll see, each agent has a different perspective and style, but there are many common themes. I’ve grouped the advice together by topic and added my own bonus tip to each section. Whether you’re going to this particular conference, or another writing event where you’ll be meeting industry professionals, most of these tips will apply. Without further ado, here are the agents and their top conference tips.

Know the Market

First things first, while you don’t have to be an expert on all things related to publishing, you do need to know how your work fits with what’s already out there. Do your homework and be prepared to answer two questions: (1) What other books out there are similar to yours? and (2) What makes your book different and unique? Here’s what the agents said:

“I think it is important not only to show your passion for writing, but also to make it clear that you are knowledgeable about your market and target audience. Let the agent know what about your book sets it apart from others in the genre, and why these elements will make it appealing to your prospective readers.”
–Carrie Pestritto (Prospect Agency)

“Knowing how your project stands out in the marketplace is key. How is your manuscript different from the other young adult fantasies already out there? What’s new about your procedural mystery?”
–Madeleine Raffel (Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency)

“Know the market for your genre. Know what makes your book different from all the other books out there in that genre–and be able to articulate that difference. This way, you’re giving the agent what he or she needs to sell your work. Without that differentiation, it’s tough to shop any work.”
–Paula Munier (Talcott Notch Literary Agency)

Bonus Tip: Need help finding “comps” (competitive books) that are similar to your book? Once you have one, it’s easy to look for more using online retailers like Amazon. Just search for the comp you already know, then scroll down to where it says “customers who bought this book also bought…” and chances are you’ll find a few more. This goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway): make sure you actually read the comps, not just the Amazon summary and reviews.

Written Pitch vs. Spoken Pitch

At some conferences you do a spoken pitch. This is the publishing industry’s version of speed-dating, where you get only a few short minutes to make a connection. At other conferences, you bring printouts of a short selection from your work or query and get on-the-spot feedback from agents. Either way, don’t try to wing it. Know what you’re getting into before you arrive and come prepared. Advice from the agents:

“I think the in-person pitch and the on-paper pitch are two different animals. If you recite your written pitch aloud, it often sounds lifeless; and if you write your pitch the way you’d tell it, it might come off too informal.”
–Brooks Sherman (FinePrint Literary Management)

“An Agent-Author seminar like Backspace requires the author to come prepared with a printed query letter. Some agents may ask the author to read it to the whole room before commenting. Practice it before attending the seminar so you won’t trip over your own words. Make sure you follow regular query letter format and don’t try to cram too many words into one page by adjusting the margins or font size. And watch for typos! ”
–Sandy Lu (L. Perkins Agency)

Bonus Tip: If you’re in a query or first pages workshop, sometimes the agent or editor may open the floor for discussion. If that happens, you can offer feedback on another writer’s work, but keep it brief. This is not a critique group where you can go on and on about what you loved and hated in the piece. Each writer gets only a few precious minutes to hear from the industry professional so be respectful of that time. If you have lengthy comments that you absolutely must share, talk to the other writer after the session is over, or offer to put that feedback in an email.

Tips for Giving a Great Pitch

When it comes to giving a great pitch, the agents are pretty clear. Prepare and practice in advance, but be ready to make adjustments on the spot based on feedback that you get. Here’s what they have to say in three basic steps.

1. Prepare and practice.

“Practice aloud with friends and writers before moving to pitching agents and editors. Figure out what works.”
–Paul Lucas (Janklow & Nesbit Associates)

“Be able to give a one or two sentence summation of the book that will have me wanting to hear or read more.”
-Rachel Vogel (Mary Evans, Inc.)

“When an author has a chance to pitch to an agent face-to-face, especially when there is a clock ticking (as in the Thrillerfest Agentfest or Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam), it is best that the author knows the pitch by heart and talk to the agent without reading from a script. Rehearse, but don’t memorize what you have to say verbatim. It’s very much like giving a speech or being interviewed. Be personable, be sincere, and be prepared to answer questions.”
–Sandy Lu (L. Perkins Agency)

“When pitching in person, I’d recommend looking at your written pitch, finding the two or three buzz words or terms you want to hit on, and find a way to incorporate those into your speech. Also, don’t make it a monologue — if I like your pitch, I’m going to interrupt to ask questions, so be prepared for a conversation.”
–Brooks Sherman (FinePrint Literary Management)

“Be concise.”
–Molly Jaffa (Folio Literary Management)

As a writer, this last tip especially tickles me because it shows and tells at the same time.

2. Adjust and learn based on feedback.

“A lot of folks will tell you to hone your pitch, but what I find is more important is being able to talk about your work in a conversationally. Sometimes the only way to figure out which aspects of your work seem to interest people, and which aspects elicit confusion or skepticism is to talk it out.”
–Evan Gregory (Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency)

“Come with an open mind and be open to hearing constructive feedback about your work.”
–Michelle Brower (Folio Literary Management)

“This is your opportunity to ask industry professionals any questions you might have. So think hard and do write those down. The only stupid question is the one that you’re afraid to ask.”
–Sandy Lu (L. Perkins Agency)

3. Be able to with the flow.

“Be confident, conversational, and concise in your pitch.  You should be able to describe your project succinctly and you shouldn’t speak from flashcards or read from a printout or iPhone screen.”
–Erin Harris (Folio Literary Management)

“Even good conversationalists can get tripped up when talking about a subject they don’t often speak about. If you rarely ever talk about your work then you might find yourself at a loss for words when the pitch is over and the agent or editor still has questions about your work. Being able to roll with the punches is just as valuable as being able to give a concise description of your work.”
–Evan Gregory (Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency)

Bonus Tip: I once gave a pitch to one agent, then adjusted it according to the feedback only to have the next agent say that the pitch was much better the first way. Take-home message: you won’t be able to please everybody so focus on the things you can control. Write an excellent book and query, do your homework and pitch to the appropriate agents. After that, it’s really out of your hands.

Take a Deep Breath and Relax

“Don’t be too nervous. Some people put so much importance on the pitch, they shoot themselves in the foot. Even if everything went perfectly, I’d still have to see the writing. It’s just an introduction, not the end of the world.”
–Emily Keyes (L. Perkins Agency)

“We won’t bite, or at least I won’t!”
–Sandy Lu (L. Perkins Agency)

Bonus Tip: Don’t be afraid to take a break. Most people go to conferences trying to squeeze every last moment of value from the experience, but it’s OK to sit something out if you need to regroup. There will be plenty of twitter feeds or websites (including this one) where you can find the information you missed.

Still craving conference advice and information? Check out these two Guides to Conference Etiquette from Jeff Kleinman and Scott Hoffman for more tips and advice. Have any other conference tips? Please share them in the comments.

Also, I have received word that some sessions at the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar have spots open, so there’s still time to register.

Now one last bit of advice:

In the end, it all comes down to the writing.

“Write beautifully, with a strong, distinctive voice, and have a premise worthy of such great writing.”
–Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary Management)

*Image courtesy of Backspace
Note: Edited for additional agent tips.

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