When you're ready to market your book, and if you've decided you want to get an agent, there are a couple of ways to start. You first need to research the agents. There are so many right now. Each specializes in a certain kind of book. Just like a realtor shows houses in a certain price range or neighborhood, and knows their clientele in that area, most agents have a "stable" of editors they like to work with. It takes time to build this stable, so more experienced agents are in more demand.
If you're sending out queries (requests that agents look at your work), you can do it cold, just by picking agents online or from the acknowledgements in books you love. Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, sometimes. Cold solicitation is a hard game--your chances of getting a positive response are about 1 for every 75 queries you send, according to a colleague in the business. That's depressing.
At pitch conferences, you get much closer. You're in the same room with agents you want to approach. You get to hear them talk, maybe talk with them, even pitch your idea one-to-one in a pitch session.
You also get exposed to both experienced agents and newer agents. New agents are trying to build their list, so they are often more willing to consider new writers.
How Pitch Conferences Work
Most pitch conferences offer a program: workshops or breakout meetings on different aspects of marketing your writing, plus pitch sessions.
Pitch sessions are why most writers come. They are brief but potent. Each session lasts five to eight minutes, usually (varies by conference). Some conferences offer each attendee three pitch sessions, some only one session--registration price goes up with more pitch sessions, of course. You request the agents you want to pitch. You prepare your pitch and any questions.
How do you decide which agents to request? Before you register, browse the conference's list of attending agents. Then go do your homework: Look up each agent's website, see what they're looking for. Some agents have great blogs and you can read about what they're seeking. If their website is more generic (all memoir, all commercial fiction), it helps to read through their list of clients, then go to amazon or another online bookstore and search out these clients' books. Don't just choose agents because they fit your genre--that's too much of a wild card. Look for the style of writing they love. Are any of the books they represented remotely like yours?
Study the first pages for voice or subject matter (you can do this free on amazon.com). Compare your voice and subject matter.
The goal is to first eliminate agents who are not a good match for your book. Be ruthless about this. You don't want just any agent--you want someone who will fall in love with your story. The closer you get to matching your book to an agent who loves the same kind of writing as you write, the more successful you'll be.
Once you've chosen your agents, take some notes. When you pitch them, it's helpful to refer to one or two books they've represented, so they know you've done your homework and have selected them carefully.
What to Bring to the Pitch Session
Write out a premise (a short, three-minute pitch) for your story. Work on it! Read the back-cover copy on published books to get a sense of what a premise should be. Usually, it's about four to five lines long, or three minutes if read aloud. Polish it until it's friendly, interesting, tense, upbeat--whatever your story's tone might be.
Practice your pitch a loud. Do this a lot, until you can say it without notes. You'll be seated across from the agent, looking at each other. Eye contact is good; reading from a page isn't as good. This may well be your next business partner in publishing, so you want to see how the chemistry is, also.
The agent will often ask questions. How much have you written, how many words? Is this your first book (nothing wrong with that--your "debut" novel or memoir or nonfiction)? Do you have a platform (social media followers, a blog that is connected to your book)? Again, if you don't, don't sweat it.
Don't bring your manuscript or even a sample. Agents usually don't want to lug anything home with them. All you want from the session is an interest in seeing your query or sample pages after the conference. They'll give you their business card, if they're interested. When you get home, you email them with the subject line of "per your request at ________ Pitch Conference" or something like that. Include what they ask for.
If they say it's not a good match, thank them for their time. They know what they can sell, what they can't. You might ask them what they'd suggest, if anything, revising. Maybe they'll give you a couple of pointers. This is valuable!
Even if you get a no, it's not wasted time; you've learned something. You've gotten a chance to pitch your book and see how it feels.
Your weekly writing exercise this week is to write a pitch. Try it, even if you're not conference bound.