Anyone who's been reading this blog over the years knows I'm a big believer in the conference verbal pitch, and went after these opportunities aggressively when I was agent hunting.
So, you might be surprised that my opinion wasn't swayed by St. Martin's editor, Jennifer Enderlin, saying, during the SMP spotlight at RWA Nationals, that she doesn't believe in verbal pitches, and rarely agrees to take them. She doesn't like them because she can't tell whether or not she'll want a book based on a verbal pitch.
Contrary to what you might think, this doesn't go against my reasons for liking pitches, (more later), but first I want to share this exchange from a few moments later in the SMP spotlight:
Audience member: If you can't tell whether or not you'll like a book based on a verbal pitch, what can you tell?
Enderlin: (looking slightly baffled) Whether or not I like your clothes?
LOVED that answer on so many levels. First, it was a humorous, slightly-sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek answer to a question that was moderately silly given Enderlin had already said she didn't believe in pitches. But I ended up loving that questioner, because in addition to making me laugh, Enderlin clarified that what she can gauge in a pitch is your personality.
Ultimately her contract-or-not decision depends on the quality of your book, not your looks or personality or clothes, but meeting an author does give her an idea of whether or not the author's someone she'd like to work with. Or really not want to work with...
But from the other side of the pitch table, I believe the verbal pitch is (almost) like free pass past the query stage. And that's where I believe my love of pitches and Enderlin's dislike of them converge. And it's all in her reasons.
She said she can't tell if she'll like your book until she reads some of it. And that's my point, too. While a query letter does show a bit more than a verbal pitch, in that there's actual writing and less "performance" involved, there's still a chance (often very high chance) the letter reader will never see any of your actual book.
The problem with query letters is the agent/editor doesn't have the opportunity to judge your story by, well, reading your story.
To me, sending a query always feels like playing roulette. Sure, if you've got an amazing premise and can craft a great query, you can increase the odds of your ball landing in the "request" slot, but it's still roulette. Whereas, if you include a sample of your writing along with a query, or can leap past that query stage altogether, at least you're judged on the quality of your writing, not your ability to write a query.
Not to mention that it's so easy, in a query, to hit some pet peeve you couldn't possibly know about ahead of time. (I didn't need to sit through a pre-conference workshop, where a panel of 6 editors and agents went through the query letters of 10 Golden Heart finalists, and ended up making, I think 3 or 4 requests out of a possible 60, to know that agents, are looking for reasons to say no when they read queries, not reasons to say yes. No means clearing something off their to-do list. Yes means adding to their mountainous reading piles.)
But, as hard as it is to deliver a verbal pitch, it's just as hard to say no in person. So, if you do your homework and pitch the right person, you're almost guaranteed to get a yes at a verbal pitch. Ta da. Free pass to request land. I rest my case. ;-)
All that said, queries, (like the dreaded synopsis), are part of the process of publication, and it's important to learn how to write a great one. But when I sent queries, I almost always included at least the first five or so pages of the manuscript. Because ultimately, it's the writing that matters.