Literary Speed Dating: How Not to Find an Agent for Your Book


Pitch sessions are a staple at most writers conferences, offering authors the opportunity to sit down face-to-face with a literary agents to talk about their projects. Some conferences pair writers and agents for ten minutes of one-on-one time, often for an additional fee. At one popular event, authors can book up to three such sessions for an extra $40 each.

Other conferences use the "pitch-slam," or "speed-dating" format to connect authors with agents. Several dozen literary agents are seated in a large room, while authors stand in line for the chance to make a 3-minute pitch to one agent before moving on to the next.

Enticed by the prospect of meeting 30 or 40 literary agents in a single day, hopeful authors spend hundreds of dollars to attend. Because such conferences attract large crowds of registrants, it's easy to see why organizers love pitch sessions. Authors, however, often find them to be tense, angst-filled meetings in which only the most confident can easily put their best foot forward.

Stressful for Authors and Agents

"On several occasions at conferences," says Folio Literary Management's Jeff Kleinman, "someone sits down across from me, we introduce ourselves, and then the writer on the other side of the table bursts into tears. It's a truly weird and horrible feeling to be sitting there watching a grown woman, carefully made up, sobbing into a wad of typescript."

"Being pitched face-to-face is hard for authors and agents," another agent agrees. "I know agents who request at least a sample chapter or two from everyone, simply because the agent finds it easier to say 'yes' than to say 'no' in a face-to-face meeting with an author. I guess I'm not so nice, because I say 'no' a lot -- especially when they're pitching me for something I don't handle. When that happens, I'm not only going to turn down that author, I might even be grouchy about it."

Pitch sessions are not only stressful; many question their value. Says author Teresa Hayden: "The absolute most an unpublished novelist can get out of a pitch session is to be told to go ahead and send the manuscript -- an outcome that's hard to distinguish from the normal submission process."

Forms of Rejections

"Most agents are too polite to say 'no' to your face," Scott Hoffman of Folio admits. "You can pitch them a book that they know -- 100% know -- they would never in a million years sign up. But rather than deal with the pressure of rejecting you to your face, they'll say something like 'Well, I don't know. For something like this, it's all in the writing.' They'll ask you to mail them the first three chapters, and then they'll glance at them for about five seconds and then pass, politely, with their standard rejection letter."

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Reports one author, "The one time I pitched a novel, the person I pitched to asked me to send exactly the same package I would have sent as an unsolicited submission. Once I stopped congratulating myself for not fainting, farting or collapsing on the floor in a puddle of flop sweat, I realized that the only thing I'd done was risk being turned down for what I said about the book rather than the book itself."

When my business partner, Christopher Graham, and I organized the first Backspace Writers Conference in 2005, we scheduled formal pitch sessions for conference registrants. However, we soon discovered that this yielded a line of waiting authors who looked like they were about to undergo root canals, and a passel of agents who complained about how much they disliked pitch sessions. We vowed to find a better way.

Workshops Vs. Pitch Sessions

The next year, we offered "Skip the Pitch" sessions: small-group workshops in which agents made comments on authors' opening pages in a relaxed, informal setting. Authors got individual feedback, and by listening to the agents' comments on the other' materials, they came away with a better sense of what worked and what didn't. Many were asked to submit their projects, and a few signed with agents. And because these were workshops, and not pitch sessions, the authors whose work was not as ready as they'd hoped could go home, make the changes that resonated, and submit a stronger project to these same agents later.

This workshop format has become a regular feature at our conferences ever since. Agents have a wealth of experience and knowledge about the industry that aspiring authors are hoping to enter. When authors stop talking and start listening, they learn what they need to know to reach their publishing goals.

Hoffman's conference experience supports this and similar no-pitch formats. "In the past three years," he says, "I've sold about 10 books from people I met at conferences. Not one of those authors did I meet at a one-on-one pitch session. So, how did those authors get to me? After my workshop. In the elevator. In the bar after dinner. Basically, in normal, organic situations that aren't terribly forced like those awful one-on-one pitch sessions."

Pitch sessions have the potential to generate tens of thousands of dollars for conference organizers. But more and more are just saying "no." They believe the authors who invest time and money to attend deserve more than a few stressful minutes with a bored, exhausted -- and quite possibly grouchy -- agent.

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author the environmental thrillers Freezing PointandBoiling Point. Karen is also the cofounder of Backspace, and serves on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers. Visit Red Room to find out more about her books and to read her blog.