Monday 22 November 2010


A little tip passed to me from a top agent: do not pitch to an agent at a party. The agent is there to have fun, yes? Listening to you banging on about your WIP is not fun.

Oh, and another one: be sensitive to the glazing over of the eyes of an agent being pitched to. I saw her eyes glaze over from the other side of the room. This was a woman who needed rescuing, I thought. I was right.

Actually, authors need to be sensitive to the glazing over of eyes even when not pitching to agents, at parties or not. Yes, we must be passionate and even obsessed about our book, but we also need to display good behaviour and common sense. Put it another way: it will gain you nothing if you bore the pants off someone. After all, you'll probably do it to your readers, too.

While I'm here, it's worth reminding you of something I've said before: writers, even published ones, need to have several pitch stages prepared:
  1. The really, really short core pitch, so short that no one's eyes could glaze over, so intriguing that the attention is caught, so compelling that the agent / other listener asks for more. This pitch is about ten seconds long. Or less.
  2. The next layer, in which you add a couple more details when there has been no sign of glazed eyes and every sign of wanting more.
  3. The next layer - do be careful here: are you sure the eyes aren't glazing over? Perhaps this is a very polite person who is disguising the fact that she's desperate to escape.If you get to the end of the third layer, you have been talking for ONE MINUTE. This is a very long time. (Unless this is a formal pitch, in which you have been allocated a certain amount of time.)
  4. In which you answer questions put by your listener. If no questions, shut up.
  5. The full-blown "I've been invited to this festival/library/conference and I actually have been told to talk about my book a LOT." one.
Please don't take me literally about the ten seconds / one minute thing: actually, you need to use your common sense about how long your pitch is but there are two strict rules:
  1. Shorter is better than longer. Practise your Stage 1 pitch till it's needle-sharp. And I think ten seconds is perfectly adequate.
  2. Don't do it when the agent is trying to have fun.
If you were the writer who made my agent friend grate her teeth, don't worry: she's forgotten every detail of your manuscript. And your name. She does remember what you look like, though.

I think she's probably right now having an e-fit photo drawn up and sent round all her agent friends.


Tanya Byrne said...

This is so useful, Nicola. Thank you. I don't think I'd ever be bold enough to pitch to an agent at a party but I'm definitely getting to the stage where I need to shut the hell up about my WIP to my friends and family. They've all been great and so supportive but they must be sick of me banging on about it! To them, my novel has become that boyfriend I keep breaking up with, then getting back together with, then breaking up with...

Sarah Callejo said...

You really made me laugh out loud. I admire agents who dare go into the beehive and always (or usually) listen politely to their pitchers. I've only been to one of these parties and I watched people lying in wait to jump editors/agents, it's a form of art.

Queenie said...

I was also told once, by an agent, that agents don't like writers to shout a pitch to them while they're in the toilet. Hard to believe anyone would, but apparently some writers think it's acceptable.

Jane Smith said...

I hope Lynn Price will drop by because she has a doozy of a story about when NOT to pitch to a publisher.

And yes, Nicola. Pitching at parties? It reminds me of a story a friend of mine told me. He's a successful comedy writer, and was once asked at a party what he did for a living.

"I'm a comedy writer," he said.

"Really? Tell me a joke, then!" said a somewhat loud man who had been irritating my friend for half an hour solid.

"What do you do for a living?"

"I work for British Steel," replied the irritating man.

"Then weld me a f**king girder," said my friend with a smile. Everyone but the irritating man thought it was hugely funny.

Liz Harris said...

Spot on advice, Nicola. Thank you for blogging it - it's something you can't be reminded of often enough.

I'm about to press retweet.


catdownunder said...

Oh I could not agree more - it is like cornering the doctor or the dentist or the solicitor or any other professional. I hate going to social events because, among other things, people tend to do something similar when they find out what I do...I sympathise madly with people who get cornered like that!

Anonymous said...

Hi Nicola!

Great post Nicola - witty, useful and bite-sized!

Thanks for taking the time to put it together.


Bill Fathers said...

She didn't look bored to me. And I was just getting to the good bit.

Nick Cross said...

I'm of the opinion that forming a pleasant personal relationship with agents and editors at these events (i.e. not mentioning your writing unless asked) is a good way to make things happen further down the line. After all, if I like these people and they like me, working together later on will be a pleasant experience, not a teeth-gritting trial.

Sally Zigmond said...

Good advice, as ever, Nicola, but then I would never even dare approach an agent at a party, let alone pitch. I have a horror of glazed eyes.

My problem though is I am hopeless at coming up with a 10 second pitch about my novels which tend to be long and rambling and about everything and nothing...a bit like me, really.

Sarah Hilary said...

Does it work the other way around? I was at the Fish party in Bantry, slightly tipsy since it was after midnight, when a woman came up to congratulate me on my win and to ask which crime writers I admired. I couldn't think of a single one, other than Patricia Highsmith (this has since been remedied and I can rattle off a long list of contemporary crime writers I love). As I made it into the fresh air outside, I asked my friend if she knew who the woman was and, 'Yes, she's an agent,' was the answer. Needless to say, I didn't hear from her again. Although luckily a couple of other agents have shown an interest.) I felt a proper wally.

jaxbee said...

Love it!
I perhaps took the lesson a little too literally once, however, when I was at my friend's book launch party, sitting next to her lovely and very interesting agent at dinner. We chatted about anything and everything for a good hour and then she said, 'What about your book, you've written a novel haven't you?' - to which I replied, 'Oh, you don't want to hear about that now.' Ooooops! She did seek me out later and ask me to send it to her though... alas that's the end of the story :-)

Sarah Duncan said...

But...but...but...doesn't it depend on the party? If purely social event then sure, but if it's a writerly one then an agent must know they're stepping into the lion's den and be prepared for pitches. And if an agent wanted to shut a pitcher up, they could always say 'send it to me' which I'm sure would work like magic.

I went to my first RNA party because I'd been told agents would be there and pitched to 6. Admittedly my pitch was very short and I waited until they asked what I was writing before launching into it, but they did all ask. Later I was offered representation from two of them so it can't have been that bad an experience.

Nicola Morgan said...

Queenie - oh, I know an editor that happened to!

Ohthatanya - I know the feeling! Mind you, that's what family and friends are for. A bit...

Sarah - I agree. And, as others have said, it is like being a doctor or all sorts of other thigns: people do suddenly want to tell you things at the wrong time.

Jane - hehehehehe!

Bill - I don't like saying "Lol" but Lol...

Sally - I think the key is to forget everything you know is important and concentrate on the bit that sounds important and exciting. Or make it up!

Sarah - true. I think we've all been in that position, the "why didn't I think of saying that?" thing.

jaxbee - actually, you pretty much did the right thing. After all, she asked you to send it. That's the best that would have happened if you'd actually pitched it. But if you'd pitched it badly or boringly, she wouldn't have asked for it. Well done!

Sarah (Duncan) - but what about a writerly party? (Such as the RNA.) Agents are not invited to such things specifically to be pitched at, unless, of course, it's an event where it's stated that they are there to be pitched to, but that's rare. (Maybe the RNA was, but I'd still recommend caution, wisdom and brevity, all of which you demonstrated.) Of course, they will no doubt realise that if they are invited to something with writers, unpublished or published, someone's bound to pitch. But no, I don't believe that an agent invited to a party should accept being harangued, bored, monopolised or prevented from enjoying herself.

You said, "Admittedly my pitch was very short and I waited until they asked what I was writing before launching into it, but they did all ask." SO, you did it right! Obviously, if they ask, that's quite different. But the pitch must (as yours was) be short and the glazing over of the eyes must be watched for! Well done!

Unknown said...

It took me a long while to get the to the one-liner stage on my MS, but sometimes when faced with an agent, I just freeze up. I've learned to take a deep breath, see if the person is still listening and slowly repeat the learned phrase, 'My manuscript is a literary spy novel set in Helsinki.' If at a social event, I try not to talk about my writing all the time...'try' being the operative word.

Very useful advice as always, Nicola. Thank you.

Rachel said...

Thanks for the wonderful advice. But i have to agree with Sarah Duncan that it all depends on the party and they word to use here is desperation. Aspiring writers should not aggressively show their desperation. That way, they emit obnoxious non-verbal and verbal signs that will irritate even the most professionally tolerant agents.

Jane Holland said...

I once had an in-depth conversation with an editor at a party, whose publisher would have been perfect for my manuscript. However, I actually forgot to pitch, beyond admitting I had a book she might like to see, because she'd gone to the same uni as me and we were discussing that instead.

Mistake or not?

Dunno, because I didn't pitch and have sold elsewhere. But at least I didn't bore her to death. Or I hope not, at any rate!

Anonymous said...

You get a gold crown for today's post. It's not just agents who are attacked at parties and such. Errant editors are as well. For those who don't know what I do to occupy my day, I usually mutter, "Oh, I collect earthworms." It's safer that way.

The idea of a pitch is to entice the other person holding the bloody red pen to squee and say, "Tell me more, darling." You dribble it out in short bursts in order to leave that agent or editor slobbering all over you. Done it, I'm embarrassed to say.

If you blather on and on, you may find your new friend is threatening to slice their wrists with a butter knife just to end the pain.

Anonymous said...

Oops. Sorry, Jane, I posted before I saw your post. Yes...where to pitch is, um, important. I remember being at a writer's conference. I'd been pitched to while standing in the food line, at the bar, in the hallway while rushing to give a seminar - these are all legit as far as I'm concerned.

But the loo? Srsly? So there I was, having a private moment between my bladder and myself when a bound manuscript came winging under the stall. All I saw were a pair of shoes, that then tippy tapped out of the bathroom.

I spent the rest of the day staring at women's shoes just so I could let them know they'd be able to collect their manuscript in the bathroom trash can.

JaneF said...

ohthatanya - I have the same problem re boring friends and family with my WIP. Within about ten minutes of meeting up with a friend I am whining 'Aren't you going to ask about my novel?'

Nicole Zoltack said...

Awesome blog post. I can't get over people pitching to agents in the bathroom. Seriously? Have a little common sense!

Ebony McKenna. said...


ien cleary said...

I never talk about my work cos that drains the energy from it, weakens the drive. Does that make sense?
No chance of me meeting any agents at parties anyway, I'd never get invited in the first place!
Wrathnar the Unreasonable, aspiring author/bus driver

Anonymous said...

Wrathnar, it may be a matter of opinion but I agree with your theory 100%. When you make conversation about your WiP, you're spending energy on it --- and if you are doing it at a time that you don't absolutely need to talk to another person (say, seeking technical expertise) then you're wasting it.

And I'm with you, ohthatanya. I can't bear the thought of being "that guy", always going on about his current WiP.

Critiquing groups can be a lifesaver in that sense alone --- we can all be crutches for each other to lean on in the hard times. Sometimes, despite the most sincere, loving friends and family, I still feel miserable about my writing -- I need to talk to someone, but sense that my loved ones need (and deserve!) a break from my Work-In-Progress Blues.

It can also help to get another iron in the fire. IME short stories are good for that; you don't want to have six novels simmering at once, but one novel and several shorts is workable. Shorts are good practice anyway.

And If I saw a manuscript wiggling its way to me under the door while I was sitting in a bathroom stall, I'd be tempted to make a rude joke about toilet paper.

Regina said...

Love the post. I hope to learn from others mistakes...sad but true. Thanks for the info.