Pitching, Panels, and Prose


The Washington Writers Conference is the evening of May 4 and all day on May 5 at the College Park Marriott near the University of Maryland.

If you have a manuscript completed, in the works, or as a germ of an idea, it's worth attending. I will be on a panel of "debut" authors sharing lessons learned. Other practical, craft-oriented sessions include a panel of "seasoned" (multi-published, that is) authors. Other experts will take about book promotion and about how to write a page-turner. Journalist Bob Schieffer and novelist Alice McDermott are also speaking in the middle of the day, for general awe-inspiration.

In my view, the benefit that makes this conference a must-do is the opportunity to pitch your idea to agents. Many agents report that they receive dozens of e-mailed queries every week, so this is a great way to connect one-on-one with three, or often a few more--in person. It's how I connected with my agent, Roger Williams, who helped me get a book contract within 6 months. I don't think I would be sitting with a published book in 2018 if I hadn't attended this conference, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it.

If you don't "land" an agent, you will still get feedback from agents--professionals are not your friends, writing group colleagues, co-workers, etc. 

The Process, with a Caveat

Every year's conference, every agent, and especially every author is different. Thus, my experience will not be the same as yours. I participated twice--in 2014 and 2015. Since I was totally surprised the first time I attended, I thought I would share what I learned.

The caveat: The conference offers a Friday night "how to pitch" session with far more expert advice from three agents. This is only my personal experience.

1. The registration form lists agents who will attend, with their bios on the website. From this list, you pick four agents to whom you wish to make a 5-minute pitch. Read the bios carefully; they explain the types of the projects the agent will take on. Don't waste your (and their) time if the agent is not interested in your genre, be it Young Adult, history, sci fi, or whatever.

2. Have something written to share--an outline, proposal, few pages of poetry--related to your idea. You may not use it but it will organize your thoughts, show you are serious, and give you something to hold in your hand. Also, as part of your preparation, practice out loud what you will say when an agent says, "So what is your book about?" or something like that. It's amazing how bolloxed you can get in trying to distill your idea into a few sentences. 

3. At the conference, you receive a slip of paper with the time slots when you will meet with your assigned agents. Given each session lasts 5 minutes, and they need to schedule time for people leaving and entering the room, the time slots are odd (10:37, 2:12, etc.). These are the times to honor, not rounded to 10:45 or 2:15 or whatever. A good watch or phone is a must. You will be looking at it often.

4. A few minutes before your assigned slot, you slip out an ongoing panel session and stand in a line with other nervous authors. You sign in and enter the pitch room. Everyone fans out to the small table where the assigned agent sits.

The "pitch room." Courtesy Washington Independent REview of Books.

The "pitch room." Courtesy Washington Independent REview of Books.

The first entry into the room is daunting, but it gets easier each time during the day (remember, you have at least three meetings). Unless you are the very first person of the day, the agent has already heard many other aspiring clients. How can you set yourself apart?

5. Talk about what they want to hear. They are not interested in the intricate details of your idea. They want to know if they can sell the manuscript. What makes your project marketable? What other books is it like? Don't babble! In fact, stop talking so you can...

6. Listen to the questions. The agents who attend this conference have a lot of experience. The questions they ask are those that other agents or potential publishers will ask. If you are lucky, one or more may ask you to send a follow-up or will follow up with you. 

My Story

My book is a biography about a 19th-century woman named Julia Wilbur. By now, maybe I have promoted the book enough that you have at least heard of her, but neither you nor any agent would have recognized the name back when I started. (If you still haven't, look around this website. A perfect time to learn about a brave and principled person!)

But in 2014, I only had a broad sense of how I would approach the topic. No proposal. No track record of a previously published book. I wrote a two-page summary with my general idea and why I thought it would be marketable. I included a short bio and a few period photos. One agent looked really bored. Several asked if I had a proposal, but, alas, no one pushed me to get one to them ASAP. Still, I decided the conversations were worth it. In fact, at the end of the day, when some agents had schedule gaps and participants could have another chance or two, I took advantage. I do recall being exhausted and a little depressed at the end of the day, I'll admit. But I had crossed a threshold. I had met with "real" agents. That was huge.

In late 2014-early 2015, I realized that if I was going to attend again, I needed to write a proposal. The book Thinking Like Your Editor by agent Sue Rabiner provided a great model. A freelance job fell through and I had a hole in my schedule, In retrospect, as I have since told the client, it was an omen that the project didn't pan out. Otherwise, I would have not devoted the time to the proposal.

In 2015, when I returned to the conference, I knew how the sessions would unroll, I knew about the room with the little tables. I felt more relaxed--that's not to say, relaxed but more relaxed. 

No one read through my proposal, or took it with them. But they saw that I had it, and it was pretty solid. I also had more market-related info to share. 

A few weeks later, several agents expressed interest in representing me. I chose the person who I thought was the best match for my idea and me, recognizing that any of them would probably have worked well. It was a pretty mind-boggling "problem" to have to select the best agent for my book! 

I know a few other people who attended the conference over the years and subsequently signed on with agents as a result. I am NOT saying this happened to everyone, or even most people. But the session is an amazing opportunity to go beyond sending out email queries and wondering who, if anyone, reads them and what they think. Instant, in-person feedback is a gift.

Conference Plug

Please consider attending the conference and coming to my panel session if you do! Early-bird pricing runs through the end of March.