How my first pitch to a literary agent went

Putting myself out there, openly receiving feedback, and moving forward!


photo courtesy of tripadvisor.com

photo courtesy of tripadvisor.com

 

On Friday, April 12th, I attended the 24th Annual Writers Institute at the Concourse Hotel in beautiful downtown Madison, Wisconsin. A month prior to that, I paid my registration fees, and signed up to pitch my memoir to two different agents: Gordon Warnock and Marilyn Atlas. I then proceeded to have minor panic attacks up until the very moment I pitched on Friday at 3:24 pm, even though everyone assured me that I had nothing to worry about. Each time I panicked, I was told my story is timely, it deals with current events, it’s emotional, and resonates with everyone who reads it.

“Don’t worry,” said one of my mentors from UW Madison, Laurie Scheer. “You’ve got a great story!”

“Take the pitch sessions as a learning experience,” my writing coach Linda Joy Meyers said.

So, when the time came, I went into that dimly lit conference room lined with two rows of tables divided by black curtains, a wide scope of agents sitting at each one, my hands shaking, my stomach in knots, thinking positively to myself: it doesn’t matter what happens, I’m going to learn something from this!

Well, I learned a whole heck of a lot in the 8 minutes I had to tell a real live literary agent the premise of my memoir….

After I finished my hook, brief synopsis and nervous rambling—all while keeping the tears at bay during the emotional parts—Gordon Warnock said:

“When did you start working on this?”

That’s when I made my first mistake. “Oh, I’ve been dedicated to writing it as a memoir since June last year,” I stumbled.

What I neglected to say was that I’d previously been writing excerpts, as well as journal notes since 2006. So really, I’ve been working on the story for nearly 7 years. The way it came out, though, made it sound like I’d only been writing for 10 months. Which was probably why he responded with the following:

“It’s way to early in the process! You have a great story with lots of tension—which is what I look for in new authors, but it’s too soon to pursue an agent. In a year or two when you’re ready, call me,” he said, handing me his card.

Now, when you read that—maybe you’ll see the positive in it. For me, at the time, well—I hate how you can have tunnel vision in these types of situations, or rather tunnel hearing. I neglected to hear the “call me when you’re finished” part and instead only heard the “when you are ready in ONE to TWO YEARS part.

Are you kidding? I can’t wait that long! I thought to myself. (I’m a very impatient person, truly I am—even if I know these things take time to do them right.) And I knew pitching right now was premature since I’m not finished with my manuscript, but I thought what the heck, I’ll give it a try. I just never expected him to tell me to give it a couple of years! His response along with his ensuing replies kind of knocked the wind out of me.

To finish up our 8 minutes, Gordon asked, “How many words do you have right now?”

“About 110,000,” slipped out of my mouth without thinking. I’m so terrible at lying—I already knew that was way over the allotted number for a debut memoirist. I think some of the other writers at the conference even told me not to admit that.

“That’s way too much!” he replied. “You shouldn’t have more than 80,000 max. You’re manuscript will need to be pristine, fully edited with no errors, and no longer than 80,000 words before you are ready to pursue representation.”

Great. Okay, I nodded my head in agreement, wondering why the heck I let that number slip. I understand that, but in ONE to TWO YEARS? Those words kept echoing through my head.

Then he asked about my platform—who is my intended audience? I told him who I am targeting, and he said with the networking I’m doing, I’m headed in the right direction—but until I have it thoroughly established, I won’t be able to find an agent willing to invest in me. I’ll have to have a large audience that I can represent with a solid number if I’m going to get the attention of an agent or publishing house.

“Start blogging, share your story, build your audience,” he said—all of which I know I need to get going with and wish I would have focused on sooner.

And with those words of ONE to TWO YEARS still rattling around my head, I asked about some political changes that are on the horizon.

“What if those changes affect the potential interest in my story?”

“Well, if you’re worried that a year from now your story will be irrelevant, then I suggest you self publish.”

Self-publishing was never really an option I’d considered before, but the thought that I need to get my story out now while it will still be widely received is making me reconsider. Remembering what one of the self-published authors on the lunch panel had said earlier in the day I asked, “So if I self-publish, grow my audience, and sell about 15,000 copies of my book, then I’ll get the attention of an agent or publisher?”

“Well, that number is wrong,” Gordon replied. “15,000 might have cut it 6 months ago, but with the current changes in the publishing industry, that number has gone way up.”

And with that, my 8 minutes were up.

His responses weren’t really what I expected. That’s when I realized all of the positive feedback I’ve gotten throughout my writing process had me thinking that maybe my story is so great, I’ll be an exception to all the rules. Nope. I’m not. And after I gave myself a few hours to come down from my unrealistic expectations that he’d want me even if I’m not exactly ready yet, I realized he really did give me a lot of valuable information to continue my journey with.

In short—it doesn’t matter how great my story is. To get an agent or publisher, I have to prove I can sell it to the world. A book is a business, not just a good story that I hope will resonate with people.

My next pitch with Marilyn Atlas went much worse. Long story short—I pitched too late in the day. By the time I got to her, she’d already left the conference once to find allergy medicine and was dying of thirst while we were talking, trying to stop the pitch session organizer in the middle of our conversation in an attempt to find a glass of water because her throat was so dry. She was tired, distracted, and I don’t think she really heard what I was saying.

She said my story wasn’t any different from thousands of others she heard in Hollywood—until I emphasized a few key details that I’d already mentioned. Then she said if I’d presented it that way, I would have gotten her attention. I felt rushed and not seen, and was relieved when the 8 minutes were over.

Would I ever pitch in person again? Probably—but what happened at the rest of the conference has me thinking about a lot of other things right now, which I will share shortly :)

Am I discouraged? Nah—I’ve just got a new plan of action! And I’m glad I had enough courage to put myself out there to see what happened.

I’d love to hear any stories you have of pitching in person. What did you take away from your experience?

 

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About Darcey: My life is my message. ~ Ghandi This is me exploring, searching, trying...working towards becoming the truest version of my self that will help impact the world in a positive way.

Comments to “How my first pitch to a literary agent went”


  1. Good for you Darcey!

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