You’re jumpy, on edge. You can barely breathe yet all around, people are unconcerned, relaxed, unaware. On the opposite wall, the second hand on the clock spins, almost too fast to see, but the time doesn’t alter. When you force your eyes away, you realise someone is in front of you, motioning you to stand.
You’re led to a dim room where an accusatory figure sits behind a desk, pen poised, watching silently as you fumble your chair and scatter papers across the table. Behind you, a beep.
'You have five minutes,’ a voice says. ‘Start now.’
You open your mouth, close it. Swallow. Repeat. You turn to the woman with the watch: she needs to reset – put the timer on pause, just for a second. You take a breath, explanations frothing on your lips.
Only then do you remember: you brought your paperwork, but you left your tongue behind.
The notion of pitching a book, as you can see from my recurring-nightmare above, is right up there on my list of Horror Scenarios to be Avoided. Yet, somehow, over the years, I’ve managed to spend a lot of time, plenty of money and a bucket-load of nervous energy doing that very thing I loathe: pitching.
SO, HOW DOES IT WORK: WHAT IS A PITCH?
The purpose of the pitch is to bring you and your work to the attention of a publisher or agent. Instead of sending off your synopsis, cover letter and chapters via post or email (where it will usually be read and filtered by an intern or assistant), you get to sit directly in front of the agent or publisher and tell them why they need you on their books and why your novel is a bestseller-waiting-to-happen (or at the very least, a fabulously good story).
Pitch sessions tend to be offered at writers’ festivals or conferences and they usually require you to register in advance. You are given a list of agents/publishers that you can book with and a short blurb about each of them and the types of books they represent or publish. You pick whoever seems most appropriate for your work (and who, hopefully, has the kindest face), and you pay a fee (say, around $25) for a pitch session. The session is generally 5 minutes, though I understand they are sometimes 10 or 15 mins.
These sessions are in high demand and are quickly booked up, so you can’t spend too long deliberating if you see one coming. This is a good thing for someone like me: I’m forced to act quickly, and I don’t have the chance to talk myself out of it.
As the day approaches, you’ll be expected to have practiced, practiced, practiced your sales-pitch because you only get five minutes. That means a very short speech, given part of the time will need to be used for discussion and feedback from the person you’re pitching to.
ON THE DAY
When the big day arrives, there will probably be a list of appointment times and agents/publishers posted centrally so every writer knows which room to loiter outside. As the countdown begins and people gather, there’s a lot of nervous energy: figures hunched over papers; others milling about, trying to memorise key points; some offering words of encouragement to their neighbours. People are inevitably friendly – everyone’s in the same boat and (contrary to my nightmare) not many look unconcerned or relaxed. It feels like waiting for the start of a race, except this is a competition with yourself; a battle against your own fraught nerves.
Usually, there are a few helpers who are in charge of the last minute ‘rounding up’ of writers – these people have to make sure they have the correct writers in the correct order, waiting outside the correct rooms. It’s their job to usher in and usher out; their duty to knock on the door if someone hasn’t emerged at their allotted time.
Just before your programmed ‘slot’ one of these people will probably approach you to make sure you’re ready. This is the time to take a deep breath and mentally rev your engines. As soon as the door opens and the last ‘pitcher’ emerges, you’ll be hurried inside and, the minute you say hello and take your seat, the stop watch will begin (sometimes there might be someone in the room as the timekeeper; sometimes they’ll stand outside the door – I’ve had both experiences).
What happens once you’re in the room is, of course, up to you but some publishers/agents are better at ‘guiding’ the conversation and making you feel at ease than others. Generally, there should be time for you to give a very brief outline of the book; perhaps a couple of details about yourself and then there will hopefully be time for thoughts or questions from the agent or publisher.
Nerve-wracking though it is for the writer, it must also be challenging for the person on the other side of the desk. For them, it must feel like a literary marathon. They have to sit and focus as a steady stream of hopefuls condense their books into bite-sized pieces – with varying degrees of skill and success. They then have to assess what they’ve heard and ask the writer pertinent questions. It must be like flicking between TV channels; furiously hunting for the killer program that makes them want to put the remote down.
As soon as the five-minute session is up, you’re expected to say goodbye and leave. If there’s something you’ve forgotten to ask, tough: you’ll have to get in touch via email.
In an ideal world, you leave the room having delivered the speech of a lifetime; the publisher/agent hanging off your every word and begging to read your chapters. But in this, the real world, it often doesn’t pan out that way. Sometimes, you stumble from the room, dazed and discombobulated; sensing that what you delivered was nothing like the speech you'd so carefully prepared. In fact, you’re certain you’ve blown it.
And that’s where my next blog begins: with those blown-it moments. Plus the pain of the post-pitch analysis.