What to expect at a Pitch Slam with literary agents


I was in LA for a writers’ conference a couple of weeks ago and the big event of the weekend was the Pitch Slam. For those of you who aren’t aware of what this is – or what’s involved – here’s the description, quoted from the conference organizer’s web site:

HOW IT WORKS

You’ll sit down for three-minute sessions with as many agents as you can fit into ninety minutes. For the first 90 seconds with each agent, you’ll describe what you’re writing and why you think it will be successful (that’s your pitch). For the second 90 seconds, the agent will provide immediate, unbiased feedback on your work and your pitch, including invaluable suggestions for improving it. And if an agent gives you his or her business card, jackpot! That’s a request to see more of your work, and could lead to signing with an agent and publication of your book.”

I had no idea what to expect at this event, other than what I gleaned from the description above, and a few tips from the same website, including the following:

TIPS FOR PITCH SLAM SUCCESS

Practice your pitch ahead of time. If you’ve never had to develop a pitch or “elevator speech” for your writing, this is a great opportunity to develop a succinct, compelling description of what makes your work unique and desirable. Write it out, and then practice your pitch with a timer to make sure you stay within the 90-second limit. The time enforcers at the Pitch Slam will be strict!”

Naturally I was desperate for more info and advice, so I did some searching on the internet – to try to get a better idea of what to expect and how to prepare. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of info out there describing what actually happens at these events. Here’s the best of what I did find:

Dawn’s Rise – Writer’s Digest ’11 Conference Report: This blog post provides a bit of insight regarding the Pitch Slam experience, but I must admit – I got a lot more out of it after experiencing a Pitch Slam myself – she really captures the feeling of it.

Falling Leaflets – Pitch Slam Summary Twitter Style:  This blog post provides some snippets of advice from the agents tweeted during and after a pitch slam.  (Wow! How on earth did agents have time to dictate tweets during a pitch slam?)

In terms of preparing for the Pitch Slam – the best advice I found was on the WriteSideways blog in this post called, “How to Slam Dunk Your 90-Second Pitch

However – that was about it – perhaps if you know of any other useful sites, you could comment below to help those facing this same quest in the future.  With that same goal in mind – let me tell you about my own experience at the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam in LA in October 2012.  That way, hopefully, you will go into your first Pitch Slam with a much better idea of what to expect than I did.

First off – to keep it ‘real’ – let’s look at some numbers.

How many agents can I expect to see?

At the event I attended there were 18 agents and the session lasted 90 minutes.  The registration was limited to 250 participants.  If you do the math, assuming that there would be an even distribution of interest across all agents, that’s about 6.5 minutes of ‘agent time’ per person.  Yep – that’s just 6.5 minutes out of 90 – the rest of the time you can expect to spend waiting in line. Given that you get 3 minutes (maximum) with each agent – you should expect to see two in that 90 minute period.  This was exactly my experience.

Here’s a tip for you though… something I wish I had known.  You have to line up to get into this thing (obviously) and (here’s the news) you have to get there incredibly early!  I went 30 minutes ahead of time and was more than halfway back in the lineup of ~250 people when the doors finally opened.  I didn’t get a chance to ask the people at the front, but I would guess they were there at least an hour early. (Of course, this means that they didn’t get to attend the regular conference sessions ahead of that.)  Once the Pitch Slam session got underway, I heard a few of these people saying that they saw 3 or 4 agents – so it definitely pays to get into that line-up an hour or more ahead of time.

There were two Pitch Slam sessions back to back – that’s 3 hours total for the agents.  I chose the first session because I had heard that the agents get burnt out by the second session. However, there were fewer people signed up for the second session and so I suspect that each person got to see one or two more agents than those of us in the first session. We were actually given the option to switch to the second session as we were waiting in line – had I known just how crazy it was going to be in that room – I would have definitely taken the offer to switch.

 —

Just how crazy is it in that room?

Again let’s look at some numbers. The room we were in was 44’ x 60’ or 2640 sq. ft.   There were 18 agents seated at tables around the perimeter of the room, in a strip about 4 to 5 ft deep.  There was also something large in one corner (I think it was a screen), and a table with the PA equipment on it in another corner.  These furnishings left an area of, perhaps, about 2000 ft2 in the centre of the room for ~250 people, which averages out to about 2 ft of spacing available between each person. There was actually considerably less than 2 ft of space directly in front and back of people as they lined up and perhaps a few inches more, side to side, between the lines. In fact, the room already looked full as I entered – I couldn’t tell where any of the line-ups began or ended. By the time we all got in there, it was total bedlam.  It was so crowded that the noise level was deafening.  The organizers appealed to people in line to be quiet – so that the agents could hear the pitches – but they were totally ignored.  I was focused on mentally rehearsing my pitch and didn’t talk myself, but I can’t really blame those that did.  Boredom won out as they waited for 83.5 out of those 90 minutes and they talked incessantly – mostly about how ticked off they were at the anarchy in the room and the fact that they were only going to get to see two agents.

I think that if the organizers had spent the money to get a properly sized room, (realistically, about twice that size) – the event would have been considerably more effective, fair, and comfortable for all concerned.

What was it like talking to the agents?

Okay, so those are the numbers but what about the actual experience of talking to the agents?  Well, again, it was absolutely nothing like the description provided by the organizers (reproduced above).  For example, I did not get to pitch for 90 seconds, nor was there any ‘strict time enforcement’ at the end of 90 seconds to cut off the pitches.  Both of the agents that I saw cut me off after the first sentence of my pitch.  The first one stopped me to say that she wasn’t interested in my genre, which surprised me because I had researched her areas of interest, but it turned out that she wasn’t interested in my sub-genre.  Fair enough – no point wasting our time at that point – but gosh I wish I hadn’t wasted 20 minutes waiting in her line. The second one interrupted me to start asking questions about my story.  I don’t think that being interrupted was necessarily a bad thing in either case – but I sure wish I hadn’t spent a ton of time honing that pitch that I never got to use. (And I had that sucker down to exactly 88 seconds!)    I don’t know if any of the other agents were actually letting people do their 90 second pitch but, as I waited my 83.5 minutes in line, I heard a lot of people grumbling about the fact that they were interrupted after only a sentence or two of their pitch.

 —

And how did it turn out?

Well – here’s another place where the reality diverted from the information provided.  Of course, I got no feedback on my pitch because I never got to deliver it.  Also I don’t think getting a business card was necessarily a ‘jackpot’; as I waited in line, I saw one agent giving out cards to almost every person they met. Of course, I didn’t get a business card, nor 3 minutes, from the first agent I saw. In fact, that’s another thing that didn’t match the info provided.  True, there was a bell at the end of each 3 minutes but neither of the agents that I saw was adhering to it.  Many people – like me – left the table of one agent or another within 15 to 30 seconds, which meant the 3 minute intervals, and the bell, were immediately irrelevant.

The second agent that I met asked some strange questions and had me tongue-tied in about 30 seconds – in particular, she liked the premise of my story but said that it could be very hard to execute well. She thought it would likely have too much narration – which, she explained, can get boring.  I know that, but what could I say other than it doesn’t, and it isn’t?  She smiled, looked doubtful, and told me to email her a couple of scenes.  No card thought – she just pointed to her name tag. I saw her make the same gesture to a couple of people ahead of me and heard several people reporting the same result as they came away from her table.  When I checked her web site, I found that there’s no way to contact her directly – you just have to submit to a generic company address.

In the end I was left wondering at the value of this experience.  About half the people around me were buzzing about the fact that they had gotten cards from the agents they saw and/or had been asked to submit scenes – but in reality, were all of these people actually going to be remembered later on when they emailed in their samples?  The other half were grumbling about getting interrupted after the first line of their pitch – something I too found frustrating, primarily because I spent so much time preparing something I didn’t get to use. However, could it be that our pitches just weren’t good enough and thus invited interruption?  I’d be really interested to know if anyone did get to deliver their entire pitch uninterrupted and if anyone actually got feedback on their pitch. Many people were complaining about the fact that they were only going to get to see two agents.  Personally, I don’t feel ripped off about that, I had worked out the numbers ahead of time and expected that would be the case, though I do wish I’d known to line up an hour early – I might have seen 3 agents instead of just 2.

Overall, I just wish that I’d been better informed about what to expect – which was my motivation in writing this post.  I hope someone out there finds it helpful.  I’d be really interested to hear if anyone actually got an agent out of this (or any) Pitch Slam. If you did – please post a comment below to give the rest of us hope.  I’d say you are definitely a star!  🙂

About Faye Hicks

I am a professor emeritus, civil engineer, animal lover and writer.
This entry was posted in Blogging, Fiction/Novels, Writing and Books and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What to expect at a Pitch Slam with literary agents

  1. gramazon says:

    Well, at least it was a learning experience, if nothing else … and a day without learning something new is a wasted day 🙂

  2. Thanks for the information – very helpful! After hearing your experience it doesn’t sound like something I am eager to do.

  3. Jackie says:

    Hi, I came across your blog researching for this year’s pitch slam. I was wondering if the agents were at all labeled clearly. I don’t want to have a mishap where I’m waiting in line for an agent that isn’t on my list for my genre. Did you guys just blindly line up or do they separate the agents somehow? Thanks! Any knowledge would be appreciated.

    • Faye Hicks says:

      Hi Jackie – they had signs at the one I attended but it wasn’t always easy to tell where to line up, since the lines were snaking around and the room was jam packed with people. If you’re really keen to see a specific person, I’d line up outside early so that you’re one of the first ones in the room. Good luck!

  4. Pingback: Marian D. Schwartz – How would Harper Lee pitch “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

  5. Joyce says:

    Thank you for the blog posting. I am about to attend a Pitch slam in New York. I had no idea what to expect and this was really helpful.

  6. Amy says:

    Faye, this is so helpful! Like Joyce, I’m about to attend the Pitch Slam in NYC next weekend. Thank you for giving us a sense of what it will be like. Sounds like my version of hell, but I guess we do what we have to do.

  7. Michelle says:

    Thank you for your post. I’m heading to New York this weekend for my first conference and pitch slam. Reading your post at least let me relax a bit about not having a completed novel yet and too, not having a pitch ready at all. Quite frankly, I think I might be better off not having a rehearsed pitch and just wing it off the cuff.

    Again, thanks for posting your experience and the math! We have a motto in my family…(slightly on the dark side…) expect the worst, hope for the best. 😉 At least now I don’t feel like I’m flying completely blind.

  8. Cadeem Lalor says:

    Hi, great post. I attended a pitch slam for the writer’s digest conference this past summer and left feeling so uplifted. Met other writers, enjoyed all the info in the seminars and got 4 business cards at the pitch slam. Then I edited and reedited my query and sample pages numerous times, and had close friends and family look it over for typos and grammar. After a few weeks I sent it off and each one got rejected. I think you have a point about the agents remembering you and the odds of actually getting published. One agent seemed to love my work at the pitch slam, and then sent me a rejection email within the hour. I think what frustrated me most about the experience was not the rejection itself, but how informal all 4 rejections were. I was hoping that since I paid for the pitch slam I could at least get some personalized feedback. Instead I get 4 generic rejection letters.

    • Faye Hicks says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Cadeem. That’s such a shame – it really makes me doubt the value of attending these events.

      • Cadeem Lalor says:

        Thanks for the reply. I actually attended the same one in NYC some other posters are referring to. I was already in NYC at the time. Overall, it was a good experience but I am just not sure if the pitch slam was the best. Then again, it helped me to hone my pitch.

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