Pitchophobia Pt 2 - Facing the Fear
In my last blog post, I described how one of the biggest challenges in my publishing journey has been the need to throw myself into pitch sessions: those five minute pockets of terror that seem to cost so dearly - not in terms of dollars, but in terms of dignity. I also promised a brief glimpse into the collection of dignity-losses I've suffered. So for those who enjoy a dash of schadenfreude to see in the new year, this is for you.
The first pitch session I attended was at a writers' festival some years ago. The pitch program was as new to the festival as it was to me, but - in my ignorance - I wasn't too worried: I'd read countless books and articles on How to Prepare the Perfect Pitch and I'd spent weeks beforehand going over my five minute speech; whittling down the synopsis to the bare bones and fine-tuning my blurb so I could squeeze it into that magical 300 second-slot.
During the morning session, the agent I was due to pitch to gave a talk. I sat in the audience with pen poised, ready for her to remind everyone about the need for solid preparation, for endless practice. But no. She talked only about timing: she said that pitches should be no more than two minutes long. I looked up, certain I'd misheard. She repeated it - TWO minutes - no more, because there had to be at least three minutes for discussion and questions and feedback. Of course there did: it was obvious when she said it ... but had I factored it in? No, I had not. My painstaking preparation went out the window. By the time I walked into the room that day, my carefully constructed speech had morphed into a tangle of indecipherable scribbles on my page: I could barely understand it myself, let alone convey the plot to the agent. It was, quite simply, an unmitigated disaster and I left with no illusions about how badly it had gone.
But, I figured, at least I'd be ready for the next one ...
The next one came the following year and I turned up to another pitch session with my neatly-typed TWO (not five)-minute blurb. I had a middle-grade children's book that I'd been working on and this time I was pitching to a publisher rather than an agent. I went in and introduced myself; sat down, swallowed. The stop-watch began and instantly, it set my heart racing and my nerves jangling. I read the first few lines from my sheet: 'This is a 75,000-word children's mystery aimed at 8 to ..."
"75,000? That's way too long," the publisher interrupted. "You need to cut it down."
I made a note on the back of my sheet, flipped it over to the front, struggled to re-find my place. Seconds stretched. "It's about a girl called Sophie," I read, at last, "and she lives with ..."
"Can you put your notes away," the publisher said. "Just tell me the story - in your own words."
I blinked back at her. Manage without my comfort-sheet? Just ... talk? I folded up my paper and rifled my brain for a few details about the story, none of which I could remember in any chronological order. I tossed out snippets but as I saw the look of total confusion on the publisher's face, I knew I was doomed. Minutes have never ticked by as slowly as they did right then. When the session was finally over, I shot from the room so fast that I forgot to leave the all-important synopsis and chapters behind: the very things that might have redeemed me.
So pitch number two was very much disaster number two.
Fast forward to another year and I signed up for a 3 day pitch conference where participants would not only learn the art of successful pitching but would be able to try out their new-found skills on major publishers. It seemed the perfect opportunity: I could face my fear in a supportive environment then put any new learning immediately into practice. It sounded the ideal way to get over my pitchophobia.
There were lots of people at the conference - many of them as threatened by the idea of pitching as I was and that, in itself, was a comfort. We were divided into small groups and we stayed in these clusters for every one of the three days. It started to be fun - we got to know each other; to trust one other; learn about the books we were all working on, get help and feedback on our own pitches.
We had two opportunities to pitch to big-name publishers, and although on the first occasion it felt as nerve-racking as any of my previous attempts, by the time I did the last one, I felt satisfied that I'd finally said what I'd wanted to say. Unfortunately, the end of the conference was marked by a whole-group gathering where we were told who'd had manuscript requests from the publishers and who hadn't. It meant that two-thirds of the group left, jubilant and buoyed. And one third - my third - left feeling failures.
With gritted teeth and a sense of dogged obstinacy though, I decided to pitch the same manuscript at the next writers' festival, After all, I'd spent all that money on learning how to do it, plus I'd drafted and redrafted that particular pitch to within an inch of its life. I figured I should give it another shot.
I was terrified again, and I didn't do a great pitch. But this time, the publisher didn't seem to mind that I was nervous or that I had to read from my notes. And afterwards, I actually remembered to leave the synopsis and chapters with her instead of taking them home. That, in some small way, felt like progress.
When I think about my collection of uncomfortable experiences, I'm surprised I kept going; turning up so many times with only my notes and my nervousness to protect me. But, each time I put myself through it, I learnt something.
The first pitch taught me about structuring and managing time; to leave space for discussion and clarification. And yes, the second pitch went very badly, but I sent a note to the publisher afterwards, forwarding the synopsis and chapters I'd forgotten to give her. She liked what she read and asked for more. She even took the manuscript to her acquisitions meeting. Perhaps it would never have got so far had I not pitched to her that day, and followed it up when things had gone awry.
And the pitch conference helped me to clarify and perfect what I wanted to say, even if it didn't rid me of my nerves. The nerves were still very much in evidence at my next session, but I'm thankful I went anyway because that was the pitch that got me published. That was the pitch that made me glad I hadn't given up.
So, for any other writers out there who detest the nightmare that pitching can be, I'd say it's still worth it. Yes, it can be confronting when you're not a confident presenter; it's unnerving, being timed with a stopwatch and you're struggling to speak. But it's worth doing because there are so few opportunities to sit down, one-to-one, with a person who potentially has your dreams in their hands.
Even if you, the author, hate every moment of a pitch session, you owe it to your story to get it out into the wider world.
And after all, in the grand scheme of things, it's only five minutes.