Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pitching your novel -- love it or hate it?

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.


Kimber Chin said...

I'm not a fan of verbal pitches. I think it 'tests' the wrong thing. Many of the best writers I know can't speak worth squat. I watch tv interviews with them and want to poke my eyes out.

So it gives advantage to folks with a skill set editors and agents aren't necessarily looking for.

It'd be like me interviewing for an accountant and having the candidates perform modern dance. Silliness.

Alli said...

Great post, Maureen. I've always thought of a verbal pitch as a way of bypassing the query letter. I have heard many agents/editors do request material because they hate to say no to someone's face, but then I've met some who said why waste their time and yours in requesting stuff they don't want? Ultimately, all I want to do is get my writing in front the right people and let it speak for itself. I have found meeting an editor/agent does help build rapport (I have met some awesome people) and I do think that we are all human, and if an agent/editors meets you, and likes you, they're more likely to give your material a decent read. Just IMHO.

Maureen McGowan said...

I agree, Kimber. YET... You still get the free pass even if you suck. Sometimes especially if you suck because they feel sorry for you. That's why I'm such a big believer.

I do get that they stress a lot of people out. And that I am lucky that they don't stress me out. But for me, they were the quick way to "pass GO".

I also, by targeting the right conferences, managed to pitch a few agents who don't even take queries and got requests.

Also, I don't think it's quite as far off the mark as you say from being an important skill set for an author. While accountants are unlikely to ever be asked to do modern dance as part of their jobs (too bad, maybe I'd have enjoyed my previous career more if there'd been more modern dance involved) authors are often asked to give interviews to the press, even if it's only for print. Honing those skills is important.

Maureen McGowan said...

Alli, re building rapport. That's what I think, too, and why I occasionally still take pitch appointments with editors, even though I have an agent. Personal connections are important. And hey, maybe I'll meet an editor *I* wouldn't ever want to work with. (Although most editors I've met are lovely people.)

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think anytime you can be memorable -- it's a bonus. Of course the writing is what sells a book, but getting in the door is often a product of a bunch of different things. Personal recommendations, meeting at a conference, contests etc... all of it helps.

Eileen said...

I don't have to do verbal pitches very often, but I do try to have one for each book. I find them useful in focusing my own energies when I'm writing. I'm easy to distract (look! a pony!) and the verbal pitch reminds me of what the through-line of my book is. Plus, they're handy at cocktail parties when someone asks what you're working on!

Sinead M said...

I'm terrible at the verbal pitch, but I agree, Maureen, they are a good foot in the door, and a chance to prove you are both normal and may even have a sense of humor.

Maureen McGowan said...

I think Eileen hit on the most salient reasons why verbal pitches are worth doing.

They help you hone your story. And it's always good to be able to tell others what your book's about.

Plus, if your looking for an agent. Seriously. Free Pass. In my experience, anyway.
(trick is getting appointments with the agents you want...)

Eileen said...

Ooh! I love it went I'm salient! :-)

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