Last week on Twitter, some agents got to talking about pitch sessions at writing conferences. It was a good discussion with responses that pretty much echoed the others: While we love attending conferences and meeting writers, pitch sessions themselves are ineffective and painful for everyone involved.
Why, you ask, are pitches so terrible? Doesn’t it get writers in front of an agent who might love their book and offer to represent them right on the spot?
Not so much. The problem is that verbal pitches do not give us any clue about the writing. These sessions put a lot of pressure on the writers, who come in extremely nervous (some even shaking or crying because they’re so anxious) and then recite a 30-second blurb about their book. All the while, the agent sits there, listening and watching intently as the writer sweats. But nothing in that pitch tells us how the story reads. By their nature, pitches are so concise that you can’t get the tone or feel of a writer’s style by listening to them describe it.
As Hannah Bowman (Liza Dawson Associates) put it:
“I can’t tell anything without seeing at least the writing in a query. I make a lot of decisions based on concept, but even so, in-person pitching is the worst way to transmit necessary info.”
And it’s true. Unless I’m really not interested in a certain concept, I usually ask to see at least 10 pages because I can’t give a definitive answer on the spot about whether it’s something I’d like since I haven’t read any of it.
Some consider pitch sessions a writer’s rite of passage—surviving the agent gauntlet—but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are other options.
Last year, Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management blogged about how much she hated pitch sessions, or as she referred to them, “the spawn of Satan.”
“Writers are told pitches are the key to all their future success. It’s no wonder they’re vomiting in the bathroom before or after pitch sessions (or on my shoes during!) Let’s not even contemplate how hard it is for agents to interact in any meaningful way with people who are so anxious they’re ill.”
She offered a simple solution that conference organizers everywhere should at least consider before the start of their next event. Instead of offering pitch sessions, why not change them into critique sessions, where the agent/editor reads the query and gives the writer feedback instead. She continued:
“I’ll meet with every writer at the conference who has a query letter. I’ll read the query and I’ll offer suggestions for improving it. I’ll read the revisions. I’ll help every author there as much as I can. And I’ll be GLAD to do it.
“And here’s the best part: when I read the query, I’m essentially getting the same information a writer should be giving me in a pitch.”
The day that blog post made its way onto the interwebs, I received an email from the person in charge of pitch sessions at Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE), which was the next conference I would be attending. She had read the post and proposed that we do just what Janet suggested—offer critique sessions instead of pitch sessions. I’d just read the blog as well, and heartily agreed with the shark, so I loved the idea.
Writers would bring the query and first five pages of their manuscript with them to the pitch session, and with my trusty purple pen* in hand, I’d review the pages as they sat beside me. Even though it was still a little nerve-wracking for the author, it wasn’t nearly as bad as reciting a 30-second blurb from memory while I sat and watched them the whole time.**
It worked out great for me, and from the feedback we received, writers liked it as well. Plus, I got to give them personal feedback, which was a much better use of both our time.
Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary shared a similarly good experience she had at a conference that does critiques instead of pitches:
“Far more effective [than pitches], though not always a slam dunk, are query critiques. The Atlanta Writers Club does this so well. They pair an agent and an editor, give us the query and five minutes, then show in the writer, and we give a critique. Partial manuscript critiques and Gong Show-style first page review panels are great too. This way, writers are getting personalized, concrete advice that will help them improve. And maybe they’ll catch our attention too.”
As an agent, one of the most beneficial aspects of critique sessions is that I can see the writing while the writer is sitting next to me. Even the most beautiful pitch in the world will fail if the writing doesn’t back it up. It’s frustrating to be really excited to read a manuscript from a pitch that sounded awesome, and OMGOSH, the potential! But then the writing doesn’t live up to the expectation and I feel let down. Sigh. What might have been… I think it’s better for everyone if we dispense with that unnecessary step of verbal pitching.
We’ve used the critique model at LTUE for the past two years now, and I like it soooo much better. The difference is huge, both for the writer and agent. There’s a lot less pressure on both sides of the table now, and I can give feedback on their work while still hearing the pitch.
This year we added another option: Group critique sessions. Instead of meeting with writers one-on-one, a group of 5 or 6 writers would take turns getting their query critiqued by the agent or editor while the other writers looked on. So they weren’t just getting advice on their query, but on half a dozen of them. While it might seem like critiques in a group setting would be more intimidating, several writers commented after one session that it was a lot less stressful because there were others there with them. Plus the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes (which often showed up in their own work) was a big plus.
Granted, some agents might not be interested in doing critique sessions, but I think it should be an option available to agents and editors for those who would rather offer writers feedback than simply listen to a pitch and respond with a yes or no.
So there are options, conference committees and chair-peoples. Consider what would be most beneficial to your members and attendees, while also helping agents stay sane. It’s a win-win for everyone. *throws sparkles*
*I find that purple ink doesn’t look as bloody as red ink, which makes it seem less like I’d just murdered their baby.
**Yes, sometimes it does feel as creepy as it sounds.
Edit: Don’t mind me, just fixing some glaring errors.