10 Things to Know About Pitching Agents and Editors

by Colby Marshallcolbymarshall-headshot1

The first time I pitched agents in person was a terrifying, enlightening, fantastic, and awful experience.  I met my now-agent that day, but I also made some mistakes that—trust me—I would be sure I never made again. (For Example: that bad joke I threw out as I sat down across the table from an agent with a sign hanging behind her that read, ‘No genre romances, no unicorns.’ The first words out of my mouth probably shouldn’t have been, “So, I guess you’re really going to love A Tail that Shines, my Unicorn Romance complete at 97,000 words.”

But, after a dodging a few cuss words, outrunning an intern who’d been promised a partnership if she returned wearing my scalp, and vowing to myself that I’d never joke about another directional sign at a pitch conference so long as I lived, I ended up taking the paper sack off my head for the last day of the conference in order to actually taste the food I’d already paid for once before heading home instead of sitting behind it blindly and in shame like I had the rest of the week. 

And as I sat there, my paper bag mask turned lunch garbage catcher beside me, it occurred to me that writers didn’t deserve to spend their days at a conference—a place to learn pitching, networking, and the ins and outs of the industry—huddled under a paper sack, hyperaware that at any moment, they might be chased by an angry mob of interns with their own agendas or tripped by a group of outcast editors known as the Publishing Professionals Who Prefer Pensive-Only Prose (who actually make very real efforts to cause writers who display so much as a hint of thinking that any form of humor–especially satire–is allowed, condoned, or funny in any way to have “accidents” that might result in serious injuries to life or limb.  But I digress…).

No!  Writers should take off those grocery sacks, demand that intern give them back their glasses, and find a wet rag with which to wipe off all the gunky food items from the past six meals no one wanted to eat and so instead threw at them.  They should learn from my idiocy and go out there and kick some agent-pitching rear end!  (Only, don’t actually kick any agents in the rear end.  That’s mistake number two, and the paper sack won’t cover this one.  I hear it involves actual law enforcement being brought in.)

I give you the Top Ten Things I’ve Learned About Pitching Agents and Editors:

10.)  Let your pitch do the standing out.  This one is obvious, considering my epic unicornian mishap.  While your goal is to be memorable, let your great idea—and its brilliantly rehearsed pitch—be what impresses the person you want to leave with that good memory.  While you might think your stellar personality (or sense of humor) will win you fans, it’s almost always better to sell yourself by being professional and having a kickass pitch prepared and polished.  No need to paint your face blue or perform a card trick to get noticed. You want to stand out in a crowd, not stick out like a pimple in a bridal photo.

9.) And speaking of sense of humor…proceed with caution.  The agent you’re pitching might match you one for one on early 90’s TV references or enjoy a similar vein of bathroom humor, but these are things to be found out after you’ve sparkled and shone.  Don’t whip out the redneck or blonde jokes–no matter how much of a bead you think you have on the pitch-ee–just yet, lest you strike out before you have the chance to leave the on-deck circle.  For all you know, that agent was blonde before she hit the hairdresser’s yesterday.  For all you know, he may just have a rare medical condition causing him to have an actual red neck.

8.)  Go with the flow.  No matter how many times you practiced your pitch in the shower of the hotel room before you run into THE agent or editor, I’ll give you nine out of ten that what one agent/editor is intrigued by in your pitch won’t be the exact thing that sparks the interest of the next agent/editor who listens to your exact same shpeel.  With that in mind, go on with your practiced pitch, but watch for the moment during your pitch when the Pitchee’s eyes light up and their ears perk up. No matter how ready you were to launch into your five-point-plan for promotion involving your awesome, 12 billion person platform, if you see signs of life when you mention your character’s name is Dave, you better shift gear into Dave like it’s not only listed on your drive shaft, it’s also the speed you use most, the way you reverse, and what you look at in your rearview mirrors.

7.)  Sell what you’ve got.  And speaking of Dave and how that one agent seems to love his name, if you sense an agent latch onto something in your pitch, tell them about it. Tell whether your character loves or hates that concept that intrigues the Pitchee more than the concept you’d planned to talk about and why. Talk about the character’s mother, and how she got the idea to name him Dave because it was the name of the bartender in the pub where she gave birth to him because they were snowed in. Anything you’ve got in your wealth of information about the world you wrote that will help Dave stick in that agent or editor’s mind.  Because even if you don’t sell the whole book right there, if you sell ‘em on Dave—who they already like—the book’s a hop, skip, and a jump away.  After all, Dave’s the star!

6.)  Don’t think you know everything about everyone.  Your dream agent might be great (or heck, your dream agent might be anything from a pile of innocent, cuddly kittens to the Dark Lord Zargrath’s older, more evil, less hygienic brother. So maybe first things first would be that if you have a dream agent, know why they’re it.  But I digress…), but one day you may find yourself in the fortunate situation to have to weigh multiple offers of representation at once. Talk to everyone, and keep an open mind. You may be shocked to find your gut screaming to go with someone completely different from your preconceived notion. Go with your gut every time.

5.)  Know when to seal the deal, and know when to walk away.  You can tell they’re interested, or you can tell it’s a bust. There’s no need to beat a dead horse, figurative or otherwise. If you make it through your entire pitch and the agent doesn’t bite at any of it, don’t filibuster. No one’s book is for everyone, nor should it be. That’s why you cast a wide net. Let the agents who slip through slip through without making them (or you) feel awkward and without prolonging the pain. On the flip side, if interest is radiating off the agent or editor opposite you, don’t assume it’s because there must be a mirror behind you and the Pitch-ee is a narcissistic bastard ready to primp and pay himself compliments. Finish your pitch, sell the points they seem most interested in the hardest, then put a button on it and wait for them to request pages. And when you those requests come, get home and send those suckers. No stalling. Don’t do a final pass of edits for three days. Have the requested materials waiting on their desks when they return to work the next day, while they’re fresh on their minds.

4.)  If they’re not interested, they’re not.  Speaking of walking away, I met one agent who only requested pages because they knew others would.  They told me as much. I know I’m not the first blogger to say this, but it can’t be emphasized enough that you want your agent and, later, your editor, to be excited about your book. You don’t just want it to be on their mind.  You want them to love it so much that they share an equal desire as you to see it succeed. Think of your agent and editor as gladiators representing you in the ring. Would you want a gladiator who looks around and goes, ‘Meh. I’ll fight for ‘em since everyone else seems to want to, but I don’t really personally give a damn’?

3.)  Toss out your street cred like candy in a kindergarten classroom.  Published?  Let ‘em know.  Give ‘em what they want…a reason to like you/be interested in you. Get a feel for the worth of each item in your repertoire, so you know how much time to devote to it. Don’t spend your whole day one it—or even your whole three allotted minutes—but do give your key resume items a mention.  If you have a prior self-published novel that didn’t do so well, it may be best to not mention it. If its sales are currently putting your kid through college and you recently appeared on The Today Show talking about it, though, then you might want to let your potential agent know you have a base of loyal readers ready to buy your next book.

2.)  What you think is important to your pitch might not be. Say your book is about a sentient truck that gets lost on a dirt road in Brazil, stumbles across a tribe of natives who take it in and teach it to live like they do. There may be an editor out there determined to buy the next book that comes their way featuring a dirt road. You just never know. You might frame your pitch around your fascinating Brazilian setting, but find later there’s a hole in the market for stories about sentient cars. Be ready to adjust your pitch if necessary. No amount of practice in front of a mirror can teach you what practicing in front of an agent or editor can. Use what you learn. (Unless, of course, you’re dead set against playing up the dirt road in your book.  Then, I’d say you’re probably really stubborn and aren’t going to work well with an agent anyway if that small a request gets up your hackles).

1.)  Trust your gut. I mentioned going with your gut before, and I really, really meant it. I meant it so much, I decided to say it again and make it number one on this list. One of the biggest setbacks in my writing career to date came from not trusting my instincts and being afraid to make the choices they told me. Your brain will always be there to weigh statistics and probability, and you need that, but this is a subjective business. If you don’t have a good feeling about something, don’t sign a damned thing. If you can get an offer from one agent, you can get an offer from another.  It might take some time, but it’ll happen.  All I can promise you is that if you have a bad feeling about working with someone, trust that feeling no matter what. However scared you are to make a choice that will keep your career from moving forward, you should be more scared of a choice that will set it back.

What’s the best pitch advice you’ve ever heard?


A little about Color Blind:ColorBlindCV1

“Years ago, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jenna Ramey’s special ability to “read” people and situations by making spontaneous color associations helped save her and her family from a psychotic serial killer: her own mother. Now, a captured killer holds the key to stopping a twisted chain of events already in motion, but he’ll only talk to one person: Dr. Jenna Ramey.”


Author’s website: http://www.colbymarshall.com

Buy link, Barnes and Noble: http://tinyurl.com/p7uhjvp

Buy link, Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/pbs3uts
Buy link, Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780425276518-0


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27 thoughts on “10 Things to Know About Pitching Agents and Editors

    1. I had the same fears. I think a lot of writers do, and it’s no wonder. In a live pitch, so much rests on your personal presentation, and combine that with stakes that are oh-so-high. That’s really why this post was on my mind so much, I think. If there’s anything I can possibly articulate that will help other writers overcome those fears BEFORE going head to head with an agent, I want to.

    1. Thank you for commenting! Like any author/agent pairing, it was probably just that classic event of being in the right place at the right time with the right book, combined with one fortunate instance of not accidentally making a bad impression. Seems like if a writer can just get those two devilishly hard things to line up, great things happen.

    1. Thank you for your comment! And it’s so true. But I’d definitely say it’s so worth the risk of one bad “unicorn romance” moment. Once you start talking, nine times out of ten you’ll find out it’s far easier than you think it’ll be. You find out the agents and editors are just real people, and they want to enjoy the experience as much as you do.

    1. Thank you!

      Not gonna lie, there’s a better chance of it than not with anyone’s first time. But then you gain the valuable experience so that next time you can deftly avoid some of those situations (and no doubt land in other new, similarly embarrassing situations at times, but that’s another blog post…).

  1. It’s no wonder you got your agent in person. You have a great personally, and although you said not to use this asset, you are very funny. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and it was very informative. Best to you, Colby. Color Blind sounds like my kind of book.

      1. Thank you very, very much! I hope you enjoy it, and that it does turn out to be your kind of book.

        And that’s a good point, really, that could be tacked onto #10. Personality can shine through that professional demeanor and kickass pitch of its own volition, and when it does we all probably come across as a lot more likable when we’re just being nice and pleasant without trying too hard. One could argue that if you’re naturally a comedian or your face is naturally blue, there’s no reason to hide that part of you. The big takeaway would be don’t make it a gimmick. At the risk of making a contradictory point, it’s worth noting the Unicorn Joke Disaster of 2012 probably served to flush out very quickly that I wasn’t a good match for that particular agent. That said, if my goal was to get my book as many requests as possible, I probably should have reined it in.

  2. Go in prepared. I managed to slip into the agent area at Book Expo many years ago (it was supposed to be by appointment only) and while I knew what I wanted to say, I wasn’t prepared for the actual agent I pitched to.

    1. Poor thing. My first car was an old red Mustang named Steph. I had to trade for a sedan when my daughter was born, and I like to imagine Steph cried with me when we parted ways.

  3. The joke you told didn’t seem all that bad to me. Actually I thought it was a great icebreaker. Was the agent already burned out from other pitches, or did she just not have a sense of humor?

    1. That is a question I’ve asked myself since. I’m not really sure. I do think there was a serious burn involved somewhere. But whether it was from a slew of incredibly redundant unicorn submissions she endured or equally redundant, similar jokes from other authors that day is hard to say. I think it comes down to being a time-and-place thing. Conferences I’ve been to were always packed, and you know that out of about 100 or so authors an agent sees during that 2-hour period, they are bound to get some who really do just completely ignore their guidelines (and in this case ARE actually trying to submit a unicorn romance) and thus waste time they could be spending to consider a potentially valuable pitch. And I think they’re wary because of it. My joke was probably just a huge, billowing red flag. That said, I think the wariness varies from agent to agent. If I’d made the same joke to an agent fresh off the high of picking up a really exciting pitch right before I came in, it might have gone over better. But it’s not a risk I’d take again.

  4. Its great to meet Colby and good luck with Color Blond! I’m waiting fro some final edits before I start pitching so thanks for the tips.

    1. Haha, Color Blond. That’s either a very understandable typo, a Freudian slip, or a blond joke. Either way, I like it.

      Good luck with your pitch! There’s only one more tip I can give you not included in the post above: Red Bull. Lots of Red Bull.

  5. Hi ELizabeth and Colby – great post … and yes, plucking up courage, being prepared and getting on with it … Colour Blind sounds a great read … synethesia-style … cheers Hilary

    1. Haha! Thanks, Peaches! Number seven goes hand in hand with another piece of advice I often give aspiring writers, and that’s if you want to write, write (the reason I say this goes with number seven is because you should sell what you’ve got, and if you don’t ever write the book, you’ve got nothin’ :-). I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  6. The winner of the random drawing for the copy of Color Blind is Sue Coletta! Sue, please e-mail me at colby [at] colbymarshall [dot] com to let me know where to ship your book! Congrats, and thanks for commenting!

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