What the heck is the pitch slam anyway? Well, depending on the person answering that question, the pitch slam can either be comparable to walking the proverbial plank, or the experience can be a writer’s nirvana. Technically, the setup involves a whole bunch of agents sitting at little individual tables arranged around the edges of two huge hotel conference rooms. And those agents are waiting for hundreds of aspiring writers to line up in front of the little tables, in order to pitch, one-on-one, their books du jour.
Expectations tend to run pretty high with writers who’ve never been to a writer’s conference before, and I spoke with lots of young men and women who were truthfully anticipating the signing of a book deal by the end of Saturday. In reality, this is an exercise of practice–practicing the pitch, testing out the story idea, gaining a little feedback from several “someones” in the business, and maybe–at best–getting a request to submit a proposal or a chapter or two. We were specifically instructed not to hand any of the agents any materials at all–not even a business card. And yet I watched as dozens of writers tried to force flash drives or varying sizes of manuscripts into the agents’ hands. Needless to say, by the end of the three hours, there were hundreds of folks who’d come face-to-face with a major expectation/reality adjustment.
This three-hour session is the only reason lots of writers attend this particular conference. In fact, the conference attendance pretty much doubled on Saturday (same thing happened last year), because there’s a Saturday-only registration option. Such an approach seems to me a bit like jumping into the middle of the open sea after foregoing your swimming lessons. But what do I know? And I have enough to worry about, with respect to my own plans and expectations, without worrying about my conference-mates!
Actually, as those of you who’ve been following this blog know, I wasn’t planning to participate in the Pitch Slam at all this year, believing that on Day 13 of my fifth chemo round I wouldn’t be able to project my strongest, most energetic, and promotable self and book story. Plus, since my first book-length priority for 2012 is my nonfiction project (although I’m being driven nuts by the next novel clamoring to get out of my head), I didn’t feel confident that I was far enough along with the manuscript to confidently pitch the work. However … I was so totally energized from the conference sessions by Saturday morning that I decided I didn’t haven’t anything to lose by pitching, and I figured I’d be totally stupid to bypass such a gaggle of agents who were only there to listen to book pitches. (None of the agents who participated in the Pitch Slam received any compensation for being there, which is pretty amazing all by itself!)
Directions in the Friday evening session designed to prepare everyone for pitching Saturday afternoon cautioned against developing pitches that are too long, for a variety of reasons. First, this is the way the three hours were organized: Approximately 60 agents (eight or nine were last-minute cancellations due to the Saturday snow storm, but three or four local area agents were added in) were seated at their little tables around the two huge conference rooms. In the conference directory, the agents were listed alphabetically with the specified genres of books they were looking for, and each attendee selected a group of agents that appeared to be a match. As soon as the doors opened at 2:00 Saturday afternoon, we all filed in and formed lines in front of the first agent we wanted to pitch to. Generally, there were about 6-10 people in each line, and each pitch session was three minutes in total.
Here’s another reason why our pitches were supposed to be ultra short: The first person in line sat down in front of the agent when “start” was signaled, and a 60-90-second pitch was designed to leave another 60-90 seconds for the agent to comment and/or to (hopefully) request some sort of submission to follow. Once the “time is up” signal sounded, the next person in line was supposed to sit down in front of the agent. (Can you imagine how cross-eyed those agents must have been after engaging in three-minute pitch sessions, one after another, for three consecutive non-stop hours? They deserve a lot of credit and admiration for such duty!) At any rate, as you might imagine would happen, most of the attendees had never pitched a book before, and the majority were failing miserably with the 60-90 second pitch objective. Instead, they talked continuously for the full three minutes, leaving the agent only a few seconds to say anything at all (and usually after the “time is up” signal had sounded). So, the next person in line started their own pitch late and, in order to be fair, would take the full three minutes even though the “time is up” signal sounded a long time ago. Consequently, all the lines were growing restless with the timing that was becoming increasingly out of whack. Eventually, the conference staff began to enforce the schedule, walking around and making sure that pitch sessions were ending at the signal. By hour number two of the three, the lines were finally moving at the planned pace. When someone finished a pitch, they would then go to the end of the line in front of the next agent they wanted to pitch to, and depending on how many people were already in that line, most attendees were able to pitch to six or eight agents during the three hours.
Typically, after each pitch session, I could tell that most people were spending their time revising their pitches while they were waiting in the next line–and I was doing the same thing. I’m not used to pitching nonfiction, not to mention that I’d only started to prepare that morning. So, I had afforded myself minimal practice time prior to sitting down in front of the first agent. Still, I had pretty good luck. The lines I was standing in were especially long, because there were fewer agents looking for various categories of nonfiction–and there were even fewer of those looking for the “health” category. And because I started feeling tired after two hours, I only pitched to four agents, whereas if I’d been feeling more on my mark, I could have easily squeezed in another two or three in the final hour. (Apparently, there were a lot of complaints last year about too few agents (I think there were 40-something) and not a big enough Pitch Slam time slot (only two hours instead of the three hours this year). The conference organizers really responded to that input, and I didn’t see or hear about anyone who felt that there wasn’t enough time to see all of the agents they wanted to meet.
The four agents who listened to me (and I was pretty good about keeping the pitch close to 60 seconds) had plenty of time for comments and input. Two of them enthusiastically requested a proposal and a sample chapter. One requested the same information but with noticeably less enthusiasm. And the fourth agent waited until I’d finished the entire pitch before telling me that she didn’t represent the health category of nonfiction (even though “health” was clearly listed under her name in the program). But since I hadn’t even planned to pitch at all when I arrived on Friday, I felt good about the experience and the end result. I learned a lot and had fun, and that’s where expectations should realistically be set for this type of exercise at a conference with close to 1000 other writers chasing the same dream.
Now I have to write a proposal 🙂 (and fortunately I attended a nonfiction session that included a few things about how to do that, plus I bought an e-book on the subject–The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters by Marilyn Allen & Coleen O’Shea, partners in the Allen O’Shea Literary Agency). Some agents were more interested in seeing the book and the writing. Others told me to stop writing the book and focus on writing the proposal (which is supposed to end up somewhere around 30 pages in length). One agent in particular made a couple of significant points, especially for me, who’s really a fiction girl but who’s writing this nonfiction book because I believe it needs to be written. She said that a completed nonfiction book can be a disadvantage because, once the concept is contracted with an agent, an editor will enter the scene who will have major input about the book’s structure. A huge percentage of editors will not want to take on the structural rearrangement of a book that’s already entirely finished. The agent also told me that going through the process of writing the proposal will prove invaluable to me once I finish the proposal and then refocus on the book, especially if I do, in fact, decide to publish this one on my own as an e-book first. She told me as well that following that DIY path will not eliminate the traditional publishing path for that book in the future!
So, my new direction is to write the proposal, which I will then submit to the three agents who requested information, along with a sample chapter (which is not supposed to be the first chapter but one that’s in the middle of the book). Following those submissions, I will give the agents a reasonable amount of time to respond. Then, unless some miracle happens and my submissions turn into something other than rejections, I will refocus my attention on finishing the book, which I will proceed to publish as an e-book, with a separate print option. The goal is to get this one, as quickly as possible, into the hands of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, so I’m not going to wait very long for someone in the traditional publishing world to say “yes.” I’ll get the book “out there,” and then continue to approach agents the old-fashioned way while I start working on my next novel. If someone eventually wants to acquire the nonfiction project, that will be terrific. In the meantime, I will have met my objective of making the information available to my breast cancer target audience.
Although there will be additional posts forthcoming on the Day 3 (Sunday) conference sessions that I attended, along with the incredible, outstanding Closing Address by Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, I want to say here how valuable I found this year’s Writer’s Digest Conference to be! And even though my expectations for the Pitch Slam were really low, I walked away from that afternoon feeling invigorated and inspired. If you’re looking for a writer’s conference that will actually send you home with practical information and experiences you can really use on your literary journey, I strongly recommend that you give this conference a try. Apparently, there will be a west coast version later this year (in September, I think), and then the east coast version will happen again in January 2013. Not sure if that one will be in New York again or in some other east coast city. But you can bet that I’ll be there, if I have to drag myself on my hands and knees!
Stay tuned for the final “chapters” of WDC 2012! And have a terrific weekend!