No Need for Nerves: Conference Agents talk Pitch Practice

by Carolee Noury

Agents Jessica Negrón, Shannon O’Neill, and Jessica Sinsheimer will take practice pitches at the 2014 Maryland Writers’ Conference, “Feed Your Writing Habit,” on April 26th, 2014 at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute (CCMIT) in Linthicum Heights. The agents recently spoke with MWA Vice President Carolee Noury about their experiences fielding pitches from authors and offer some valuable advice for preparing for pitches. Register for the conference today — pitch practice sessions are filling up fast!

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About the agents:

Shannon O’Neill is an agent with Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. She graduated with honors from Dartmouth College and earned a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins. A native Washingtonian, Shannon still calls the capital home. One of her favorite haunts growing up was Politics and Prose, so it was little surprise when she found herself working as a bookseller and marketing manager for the landmark independent bookstore. She spent six years at The Sagalyn Agency as agent and editorial director working with leading thinkers, journalists, and bestselling writers. She is on the lookout for writing that informs, intrigues, or inspires: special interests include narrative nonfiction, popular science, current affairs, the history of ideas, and literary and upmarket fiction.

Jessica Negrón is an Assistant and Junior Agent for Talcott Notch Literary Services in Milford, C.T. She specializes in the following Adult genres: speculative fiction mostly (scifi, fantasy, etc.) and psychological. She is “very” interested in all genres of YA.

Jessica Sinsheimer is an Associate Agent at the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency in New York, N.Y. she specializes in literary, women’s, Young Adult and New Adult fiction; her nonfiction interests include psychology, parenting, self-help, cookbooks, memoirs, and works that speak to life in the twenty-first century.

Find out more about them on the Maryland Writers’ Conference’s Speakers, Panelists, and Agents page.

Carolee Noury: What should people expect when they attend a pitch session with you?

Jessica Negrón: They should expect a casual conversation. Don’t be scared! I’m there to help, not to discourage.

Shannon O’Neill: No need for nerves; I’m talking to you because I’m interested in what you have to say. The pitch and subsequent conversation should be a constructive experience and could lead to something great.

Jessica Sinsheimer: Well, first of all, if you’re afraid of pitching, I’m a good choice for your first session. I’m both from California (and sensitive by nature anyway) and pretty much have my general demeanor set to “nice,” so it’s a safe bet that I’ll be supportive and won’t say something like “Pitching: you’re doing it wrong” (not that anyone would! But I know writers fear this).

I’m really editorial, so I may give you ideas for your book on the spot. I may ask to see your query, so I can help you edit (so please bring a copy. And bring a pen; I always — ironically, given my profession — seem to be without pens). It really depends on the writer and the project. I know you’ve paid for your time; I want you to get a lot out of it.

CN: What advice would you give to authors in preparation to pitch?

JN: Practice out loud, in front of a mirror. Don’t worry so much about memorizing it, but become familiar enough with your pitch that you can speak about it naturally and won’t have your nose stuck in a note card.

SO: Make sure you have done your homework, both about the essential elements of a pitch and about the subject areas of interest to the agent with whom you are speaking.

JS: Practice on everyone you can. I’d say start with someone you know well, who will like you no matter what you say (for example, your mom, your best friend), move to someone a little more neutral, and then try it out at, say, dinner parties, when people ask what you write about. The more you talk about your book, the better you’ll be able to sense which descriptions work and which don’t. Gauge the reactions of your listeners and, if you’re unsure, give them two choices: for example, “Should I say _____ or _____?” (It’s best to give options, so that you don’t put your partner in the position of saying they like it or hurting your feelings, if it isn’t working.) The more you talk about your book, the better.

A formula that often works is “[Protagonist] wants to _______, but can’t because of [conflict], so s/he [what the protagonist does], which results in ______.” You can then go on to “Now they have to [decide/escape/whatever] or [the stakes].”

Think book jacket copy.

CN: Would you please share a memorable pitch experience (good or bad)?

JN: This will actually be my first official pitch session, so I don’t have any stories to tell yet!

SO: I once had a woman pitch me the exact same project at the exact same literary conference two years in a row. It wasn’t right for me the first time, which I told her… so it made the second time around even more uncomfortable for us both! The takeaway: if an agent tells you your project isn’t right for them, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to approach them again unless the manuscript or idea has been completely overhauled.

JS: My most memorable was with a writer at the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam in NYC. We had a new meeting every three minutes (which was, as you can imagine, insane) with a ton of writers standing in line after the writer pitching. The pressure was intense, even for me; I can’t imagine how the writers were feeling. I brought a huge timer (it’s about a foot tall, and kind of surreal, which seemed fitting) just in case, and a whole bunch of individually wrapped truffles to give out, simply because I had them in the office and had decided to give up sugar for the millionth time that year.

The day was already going badly when a writer asked if my Diet Coke (caffeine is necessary for these things!) was wine — which, believe me, wouldn’t have helped. Then a writer sits down. She’s very angelic-looking — blond hair, blue eyes, dressed like an innocent businesswoman. Just proof that you can’t judge writers by their covers. She pitched; I asked to see her work. Somehow she was convinced that I didn’t mean it, because she snapped (and forgive my language, but the story doesn’t work without it) “You don’t have to blow smoke up my ass if you’re not interested!”

I was stunned, but tried to recover (and pick up my dropped jaw) quickly. “I actually was interested,” I said. Emphasis on “was.” She didn’t ever send her work, but if she had, I would have been skeptical. I need to know that people are not only good writers, but good business partners, and that she was already snappish — well. Not a good sign.

CN: What made you want to be an agent (aside from loving books :)?

JN: I knew I wanted to go into publishing, and after working in a few different roles, I found the agent one suited me best. I like being able to work so closely with authors.

SO: My desire to help deserving writers reach an audience.

JS: You know, it’s been a long process. It’s the sort of love that you rediscover every so often. I fell into it by accident; my college roommate passed down two internships (one at a big, scary, corporate-style agency — and another at an academic press) to me; I then interned at a small, radical magazine that regularly received death threats. When I graduated, I saw an ad for an assistant position with Sarah Jane, and I have been there ever since. Sarah Jane is just plain an amazing human being. I could probably work with her on, goodness, sandpaper manufacturing, and still enjoy it.

In terms of the work itself, it’s all about the people. Of course, like any profession that relies on creative people and the whims of a creative industry in a recession. This means there are a lot of ups and downs. But the people I work with are just so amazing. When you fall for a work, you fall hard. When you create something with someone, you have this incredible experience together. I need to know that my authors are willing to put in the work, to take my suggestions and run with them — and, time after time, they exceed my expectations.

I think what I love most is that it’s an industry that is ripe for creative publicity and projects. We all know we need it (with more books than ever before, it’s important to make you, and your work stand out) ; now it’s a matter of taking those ideas seriously and running with them.

I think we’ll see a lot of new projects, and new ways to present them, in the future. One of my clients, Kelsey Macke, and I are working on a project that’s half album, half book — the work has disguised QR codes (in line drawings “by” the protagonist) that go to her songs.

I think we’ll be seeing a lot more innovation like this — and I can’t wait.

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