I spent the past two days at the Writers Digest Annual Conference in NYC. It made me feel I’m starting my writing career about 30 years too late. Lots of young, hopeful aspiring writers. I’m not completely sure what turned me off the most, but the “pitch slam” certainly played a role.
A “Pitch Slam” is like speed dating with agents. You really need to have a thick skin, because you only get a max of 3 minutes with each agent, and if he/she isn’t wowed by you in the first minute or so, you may be summarily dismissed. I maintained a 50% batting average pitching SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (book #2). What that statement doesn’t tell you is that due to long lines for the agents I wanted to see, and a time constraint of a train to catch, I only spoke with two agents.
Imagine 400 people herded into a hotel ballroom with 50+ agents at tables around the perimeter. Aspiring authors lined up at their chosen agents – with many lines as long as 25 people snaked in and around the lines of adjacent agents who may have had 5-10 people in line at a time. You got 3 minutes with an agent before someone rang a cowbell and yelled for you to move on. Once at a table, because of the many surrounding conversations both at adjacent tables and people talking in the lines, the agent had to ask you to repeat yourself and you frequently had to do the same. The background noise was deafening, even after I adjuestd my hearing aids.
The two agents that topped my list had cancelled (both older, very experienced agents), but there were up to 10 others I hoped to pitch to, carefully selected for the types of writing they represent.. I was motivated by the first agent I spoke with, who immediately asked me for the first 50 pages of SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY. I then stood in line for my next agent selection for 15 minutes, only to be told before I even got my whole pitch out that it “wasn’t doing it for” her – in other words, move on even before the cowbell rings. The scenario’s not anxiety-producing enough – it has to also be dismissive!
I stood in the next line for over 20 minutes with five people still ahead of me and began asking myself why I, a woman old enough to be most of these kids’ grandmother, was demeaning myself like this. Yes, I’d like an agent, because without an agent I’ll have no chance at a large publishing house. But really, I’ve been a successful career woman for forty years. I expect to grovel a bit when trying to carve out a niche in a new career, especially fiction – hard to break into for anyone – but to me this whole scenario is such a power play. If you’re at all nervous and can’t get your pitch out smoothly, you get the hook. Or even (as in my case) if you manage to say what you wanted to say – or at least started to – an agent can decide they don’t like your look or your hair (or your age?) and not even give you enough time to say what your book is about, let alone critique your pitch, as we were told they would do.
Earlier in the day I’d chatted with a woman at one of the many sessions who had decided against the pitch slam in favor of waiting for another conference where she could make appointments ahead of time for fifteen minutes with up to ten agents. You send thirty pages of your work to the agent in advance and get to discuss its strengths and weaknesses (and potential for the agent’s interest) privately. So much more civilized and productive than the chaos of the pitch slam.
Back in line in the ballroom I overheard a man saying to a line neighbor, “How can something so stressful be so much fun?” There’s an adrenalin junkie or two in every crowd. But clearly there were others in the ballroom with me who didn’t see it as I did. For the record, he was young – thirtyish, I’d say.
I looked at my watch and saw that if I stayed in that line it was the last one I’d have time for before running to catch my train. I said, “what’s the point?” I smiled at the man behind me and said “I’m outta here.” I figure I already had a 50% success rate, and it wasn’t likely to get better. I went downstairs and retrieved my checked bag, put on my coat and boots, and started walking toward Penn Station. A few blocks away, I was so frustrated with the crowds and hustlers (my tolerance was diminished by the chaos I’d left), I dropped down into the nearest subway entrance and bid farewell to Times Square and writers’ conferences.
I had spent the previous 24 hours listening to mostly self-important people who reminded me of some of my college professors (not the ones I’d liked) rambling pompously, many selling a product or service, going from one session to the next where I heard the exact opposite of what the previous speaker had said. There were exceptions – there was one very funny agent who spoke and who would be dynamite to have as an agent – unfortunately her focus was crime novels. One of the agents who cancelled out on the pitch had a presentation impressive enough to make me buy his book, although I question now if I should have wasted my money. Conferences are the key places to land an agent, and getting one by mail or email is much less likely. Without an agent, my book will go nowhere and I’m not self publishing (although that was the push at the conference – like, why bother even trying for Random House, just do it yourself). So I may just be going back to knitting my way through my winters.
Maybe I’m just too old to start over in such a competitive field.
But then, maybe I’m just too damn stubborn to give up yet. I’ll see what happens with the agent who asked for 50 pages, which I sent off this morning. I’ll keep trying the old-fashioned route to get an agent, at least for a while. But I won’t quit my day job or plan how to spend an advance any time soon.
This is very very interesting to read. I had no hint at what it takes to become a published fiction writer. This experience didn’t sound appealing to say the least …..especially for a woman from a peaceful home environment in a beautiful setting! Thanks for sharing your insights! Carry on!
I expected to be panicked and tongue-tied, but found I had to rein in my resentment instead. Would love to interview the other 399 people in the room (excluding agents – although that could be interesting, too!) to get their impressions. (Hmmm…budding article?) My place, increasingly, is in front of the fire at home!
THE PUBLISHER’S COW BELL DUNG
Dawn, I found your article describing your gauntlet experience at the Writer’s Conference. Well written and sure goes to the heart of every writer irrespective of positioning along the path of authorship. The buz is everywhere, ie the print publishing industry is falling apart. The whole format of how people read has changed and actually, because of the web, new opportunities have opened up that never before exhisted. Kindle craze has swept the globe. So all things considered you would think that all connected with the publishing industry (especially agents) would re-kindle an old-fashioned love affair with authors standing in those brutal lines at Writer’s Conference arms outstretched. Their revenue, the very exhistance of print, depends upon the embrace. Stay tuned because success may be just around the corner. In the interium keep writing. You have a story to tell and that’s what writers do.
Gloria Waldron Hukle-Author