What’s preparing for an in-person pitch like for an author? “…palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy…” Okay, yes. Sometimes I think in Eminem lyrics, I am from Detroit.
But what about the “other side?” What do agents think during a pitch session? I’m thrilled to introduce Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Liza Dawson Associates Literary Agency, who is here to give us a peek at life on the other side of the table.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.
To really take you into the scene, here is a dual POV of what a pitch session is like:
How do you get ready for a pitch session?
HN (Heather Novak): Pre-pitch, I’ll spend weeks annoying my family, friends, coworkers, critique group, the pitch workshop instructor, and even my mailman Elvis (no really, that’s his name). I read them my pitch over and over and over again until it’s exactly where I want it — 133 words (or less) of tightly wrapped main conflict, scribbled on color coded note cards. I then change my clothes 34 times only to settle back on the first outfit and then redo my makeup because I sneezed and black eye liner went up my forehead. I’m extra talented like that.
JJB (Jennifer Johnson-Blalock): Go to the bathroom and then maybe do that again–once they start the pitch session, we’re basically chained to the chair until it’s over haha. Get coffee and water: caffeinate; hydrate. Make sure I have business cards at the ready in case I need to hand them out (I hope I need to hand them out!). Grab a piece of paper and a pen just in case.
Now, it’s time for the pitch session.
HN: I’m concentrating on my breathing as I check in, trying to calm my thudding heart…not because I’m a master yogi, but because I don’t want to sweat my makeup off (Priorities!). My stomach flips as they call my name and I’m escorted down the hall, words of encouragement from the moderators filling my ears.
JJB: I’m clearing my mind and preparing to listen–I have no idea what I’m about to hear, but I’m hopeful it will be something I’m looking for.
HN: I can’t hide my smile when I walk in the room. This is a brilliant opportunity to get feedback on my pitch, whether it be a positive or negative response. I remember the quote that my pitch session teacher said, “Agents want you to succeed as much as you do.” I introduce myself, sit down, and start my pitch.
JJB: Once the pitch starts, my mind races. Like many readers, I’m a visual person–it’s tough for me to process information audibly. I’m listening hard, trying to figure out a) if this is something I want to see more of and b) what feedback I could give that would be helpful. I don’t pay much attention to how the pitch is delivered, except insofar that a well delivered pitch helps me to better understand the content. But the content is paramount; you may have a difficult time pitching but still be a fantastic writer.
HN: The first few seconds after a pitch is terrifying. There’s always a beat of silence in which 1000 hopes hang in the air. I take a deep breath and prepare to answer questions about my story, my characters, and my vision for my career. (A pitch should take less than one minute, leaving plenty of time for Q&A.)
JJB: I have to make a snap decision about whether to request pages and how many to ask for. I tend to be generous–if the concept sounds at all appealing, I’ll at least ask for the query and 10-20 pages, just so I can see it on paper. If I’m asking to see pages, it’s pretty easy–the author is happy! I do try to temper expectations, though; if it’s a stretch, I’ll be upfront that I like this element of the story but am unsure of this part. If it’s a no, I try to be specific about what aspect didn’t appeal to me.
In short three-to-five minute pitch sessions, the yes or no is really all we have time for. If it’s a longer ten-to-fifteen minute session, regardless of whether I requested or not, I do my best to make the session beneficial. I offer to give feedback on the pitch itself or answer any questions they have about me, my agency, or publishing as a whole. If it’s a no simply because I don’t represent that genre, I’ll try to think of a couple agents they might query. If the author has their query letter on hand, and we have time, I’m happy to take a quick look at it. I want our time together to be as useful for the author as possible.
HN: If the agent requested material – I’m so excited I can barely talk. I take the agent’s card and instructions to submit and thank them for everything. If the agent decides to pass – I thank them for everything and wish them well during the rest of the conference. After all, I want to find someone who is as passionate about my project as I am!
JJB: Saying yes is the best because we’re all happy. If I have to say no, I try to do so as gently and constructively as possible. The absolute worst is when someone walks away upset or angry. If I’m really excited about something, I’ll make a note so I can keep an eye out for it in my inbox and read as soon as possible. I know sometimes manuscripts need another revision or an extra polish after a conference, but I really am eager to read after pitch sessions!
Any final thoughts?
JJB: Pitch sessions can be hard on both the author and the agent. On the agent’s side, we often take pitches for hours at a time, which is tiring even if everything goes perfectly, and often these sessions happen in the midst of conferences at which we’re already participating on panels or taking informal pitches at cocktail parties. We know authors often pay extra for pitch sessions, but keep in mind that the agent often isn’t getting paid beyond travel expenses. I participate in conferences and pitch sessions because I’m looking for new talent, but also because I truly want to help writers and give back to the publishing community. Remember that pitch sessions are not the only way to find an agent and that at the end of the day, we really are all on the same team.
HN: Agents are humans, too. Try not to bother them when they’re in the bathroom, getting coffee, eating, at a restaurant with friends…you can see where I’m going with this. If you want to connect to an agent, try social media! Or a good, solid query.
Thank you, Jennifer, for coming to share your perspective on Nights of Passion blog! It was wonderful to have you here. Stay gold, Nights of Passion readers.
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