I had the opportunity to pitch my manuscript for EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn to four literary agents at the University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute this last weekend. Though I’m sure I’ll do a post or podcast of its own on the conference itself at some point, I thought I’d pass along some tips for what to expect during agent pitch sessions based specifically on my experiences this weekend.
I can’t pretend to have done dozens upon dozens of these pitches, and though I do have a good track record of getting page or chapter requests out of them (four requests from four pitches this weekend, for example–fingers crossed), every agent and every pitch is different.
The following questions are some of the most common ones I received, or some of the ones I found most challenging based on what I had or had not prepared for.
1) What are some comp titles for this?
I came prepared for this question, but I froze up so hard when it was asked of me. I shouldn’t have tripped up since I literally made a list of comparison titles I drew from while writing EMPATHY, but nervousness had me forget that all I had to do was turn to a different page in my notes and reference that list directly.
I did manage to choke out one of the titles (Hugh Howey’s Wool, from which I drew to structure the research compound itself), but I wish I had at least been able to stumble my way through comparing EMPATHY as a technology to Information as featured in Malka Older’s Infomocracy. My original thought in writing EMPATHY was to create a 21st-century Flowers for Algernon, which also would have been handy to throw out there had I thought to mention it.
The lesson to be learned here is that even if you come prepared, make sure you practice all of your pitch, not just the “hook and the book” component. As one particular agent said, “Right now you know your book better than me. I need you to tell me how I could sell this to a publisher.”
2) What kind of research did you do to write this?
Only one agent asked me this question, and I can say this is the one question I came with no response prepared for. Though EMPATHY is a technothriller, one of my goals in writing it was to avoid bogging it down with technical details like one might encounter in a military or medical thriller. Though highly technical thrillers can and do sell well, I wanted the focus of this book to be more on deeply human stories in a time of extreme technological advancement, which puts less of an emphasis on the technical side of things. That being said, that alone is not a sufficient enough answer for a question like this.
In EMPATHY‘s case, I was able to talk about my background in experimental design based on my undergrad studies in linguistics, which required me to draw up and execute a study of my own design after receiving Institutional Review Board approval. This was instructive in designing the EMPATHY research compound and creating an almost ethical experiment (for the book, not for my actual research).
Where the neurological side of things is concerned, my interest in linguistics did lead me down the psycholinguistic trail, which did naturally have some tie-ins to neurolinguistics (I can see your eyes glazing over from here). I’m also fortunate enough to have a neuroscientist among my beta readers, and she hasn’t been shy about making suggestions where those matters are concerned. I’m both thankful and lucky for that.
Granted, my response to this question was nowhere near as thorough as the above when asked it. I managed to stumble my way through a few keywords that seemed sufficient to move on to the next topic, but take it from me, friends: 1) always do your research, and 2) be ready for this question should it come up during an agent pitch.
3) Do you think this has series potential? Are you working on any follow-ups?
This question will admittedly come up less frequently if you’re pitching something outside the umbrellas of sci-fi and fantasy. Since there’s a ton of world-building that goes into these genres, though, it’s not uncommon for authors to have a franchise in mind.
If you do plan on writing a series, however, it is critical that the first book be able to stand alone. Make sure you emphasize this point during your pitch, and back it up with feedback from your betas if possible. The reason for this is that though agents are looking for writers who are interested in making a career out of writing, there are no guarantees that a first book will do well enough to warrant a publisher saying they want more in the series.
I’d love to tell you how I answered this one for EMPATHY, but I don’t want to give anything away 😉
4) What else are you working on?
This ties into the previous question a bit. If you’re not writing in a genre that would normally lend itself to a series, you may be asked what else you are working on as a sort of probe to verify whether you’re a writer who’s in it for the long haul or if you’re going to be a one-and-done.
Again, assuming you actually are working on something else, make sure to be prepared with a quick logline for that project as well. In one of my pitches (I don’t think I was even asked what else I was working on in this case), I did drop a line about how I am currently writing XXX Accounting, and the agent actually seemed almost more interested in that title than EMPATHY. Even if things don’t work out between us for EMPATHY, guess who’ll be getting a query for XXX Accounting once it’s ready to go out?
That’s right. That agent. Not only that, but I’ll be able to say I met her at a conference where I was pitching her another project at the time–a two-for-one deal, if you will.
There’s plenty more on agent pitches I could dive into, but I’ll save those for future posts. Just remember that the key thing to keep in mind during any of these pitches is that you’ve already done the hard work. You wrote a book. A whole book. All you have to do know is be comfortable and thorough when you talk about it. Agents want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. It’s a reciprocal relationship, so try to remind yourself of that before, during, and after any pitch you might do.
(And keep your fingers crossed for me!)
Thanks as always for reading. Want to get chatty about pitches or writing in general? Find me on Twitter or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.