Liars Club

How do you pitch your book at a conference?

by Merry Jones on March 28, 2011

in Advice for Writers,Liars Club Philly,The Writing Life,Uncommitted

With conference season upon us, the Liars Club is presenting a series of posts aimed at anyone thinking of attending a writer’s conference.  Check back regularly for more conference wit and wisdom! Liar Merry Jones kicks this one off:

So you’re at a writers’ conference and you have a chance to sit down with an agent.  This encounter is basically like speed dating; you have about five minutes to get the person across the table from you to want, if not to commit to a relationship, at least to try one out.

You have probably 15 seconds to make a lasting first impression.  Another 30 to build curiosity.  A mere few minutes to captivate, inspire and intrigue.

These time estimates don’t apply just to hooking agents.  They apply to meeting people in general.  In our culture, first impressions matter a lot, whether consciously or not.  So, when you approach that agent with your banging book concept, remember that you’re about the hundredth person she’s seen that morning.  And you have to make her hear and notice you. Which means, somehow, you have to get her attention.

And that’s where creativity comes in.  I know authors who have gone far to get agents’ attention.  One woman wore an outrageous large extravagant hat.  Another went dressed as her main character: a prim Victorian lady.  One guy wore his parrot on his shoulder.  And someone else actually admitted to hobbling in on crutches, feigning a broken leg, just to make an impression.

They all made, I’m sure, strong first impressions.  But was that enough?

Apparently, it wasn’t, as not one got agents that way.  Getting attention is good, but it doesn’t necessarily require circus clowns.  Intelligent eye contact and sincerity might be just as effective.  Because it isn’t enough to shock with costumes or win sympathy with a limp.  Even if you wear neon tights and and arrive via trapeze, you’ll need something more.

So prepare. Find out in advance what other books that agent has represented, what she is interested in or specializes in, what direction her agency is moving in.

Then, once you have the agent’s attention, show how your work fits with her areas of interest, expertise and growth.  Point out both how your work is similar to books with strong success, and how it builds on that success, moving into profitable and exciting new territory.  Be careful not to swagger; let the agent decide if your book is the next Harry Potter or Twilight.  But help her by placing your book on a mental shelf—For example, “It’s kind of like The Girl with the Pearl Earring meets The Wolfman.” (Or whatever applies.)

And don’t ramble!  Be prepared with a few well-practiced, succinct sentences that sum up your book.  Envision this summary as a taste test.  Give her one bite of fillet, a single morsel of chocolate, one small sip of wine.  Make her want more. Tantalize.  Tempt.  Tease.  Be excited.  Let your enthusiasm and passion for your work show.

But again, this interaction is not just about you and your work.  A speed date is, after all, still a date.  It involves the other person, too.  Ask questions.  Find out whether this agent interests you.  Whether her energy and goals are compatible with yours.  Tune into your instincts; pick up nonverbal signals and cues so that you can decide if the two of you seem to fit. Like dating, working with an agent isn’t one-sided.  It requires shared goals and commitment on both ends.

Afterwards, when your five minutes are up, no matter how the encounter has gone, remember to shake hands.  Thank the agent for her time and attention, just as you would a speed date.  Walk away with a smile.

Oh–And, on your way home, remember to shed the gorilla suit before you hail a cab.

Merry Jones’ newest mystery, SUMMER SESSION, comes out in the UK in May, in the US in August.  She has also written the Zoe Hayes mystery series (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, and THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS), as well as humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS).  Contact her here or at


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Elaine Sturman March 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Hey, Merry–this is really good advice! And written with your usual wit.
Can’t wait to read the new book!
Keep it coming.

Rich Weiss March 28, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Hi, Merry,

Your advice is very clear and well received. I’m pacing myself to finish my novel in time for next year’s Write Stuff Conference. I’ll certainly keep your insight on hand. Thanks for sharing your wealth of experience.


M.E. Anders March 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Thanks, Merry! When I get the opportunity to pitch to an agent, I will be well-armed with these tips.

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