Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hunt for an Agent: Pitch Conferences, Research, and Other Fun Tools

Spring is the time of new birth, and that includes book manuscripts.  Writers have been working hard all winter and want to bring their babies into the world.  Perhaps even launch the process of looking for an agent. 

Many of my clients and students are trying pitch conferences this spring:  a place to meet agents face to face, and even get feedback on manuscripts.  Two of the prime pitch conferences in the U.S. are hosted by Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

The Loft's pitch conference is April 7-9 and Grub Street's pitch conference is May 5-7 this year.  Each offers private "pitch sessions" with agents and editors. 

Conferences can be expensive.  Success (meeting the agent of your dreams, who falls in love with your manuscript) is far from a guarantee.  It takes preparation and work to get the most from the experience. 

One of my clients, Libby Jacobs, likes to attend the annual pitch conference sponsored by Grub Street, a Boston writing school, called Muse and the Marketplace.  Last year, she met two agents at the conference's Manuscript Mart meetings who requested full manuscripts of her novel-in-progress.   She's been busy revising all winter and is almost ready to deliver. 

Libby says, "I find it an excellent way to establish meaningful contact with agents.  In addition to over 100 conference sessions on both the art and commercial aspects of writing, authors can choose which agent(s) they want to meet" through information on Grub's website about what each agent is looking for.
Libby used their interests to narrow her list of agents to ones seeking women's fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction, the focus of her novel.   She researched Publishers Lunch ( and did Google searches to study each agent's blog and interviews, and specific titles they represented.

"When an agent available at the conference seemed especially promising," Libby told me, "I read at least parts of one of the novels that agent represented.  In my query letter, I referenced similarities with my own book, a focus on art, music, magic, etc."

Libby likes Grub's conference because not only does she get one-on-one time with an agent, but the agent also reads the first twenty pages of her manuscript, query letter, and synopsis.  She always got valuable suggestions. 

David Mura, a colleague at the Loft where we both teach, attends the Loft's pitch conference in April.  David has published nine books---two memoirs, a novel, four books of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and an essay on pornography.  "But at present," David says, "I have no agent."  His last two agents both quit being agents for various reasons, he told me, and he hoped to get an agent at the Loft Pitch Conference.  
David is probably best known for his two memoirs, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was a New York Times Notable Book.

"I looked for agents [on the pitch conference's list] who seemed to be a good fit first for my novel, which is a literary novel set in 1930s China, when the Japanese invaded,"  David told me. "My novel recounts the relationship between a half-Japanese/half Irish-American and the bastard sister of the warlord who rules over Manchuria."  He was also looking for an agent for his book of essays on race.

"It was difficult to find an agent whose interests covered both books," David says.  He wanted an agent of color, since racial themes were central to his work.
Before the pitch conference, he wrote out descriptions of both books and practiced presenting them.  As a teacher and performer, he says he's comfortable speaking on literature.  "But it's different when you're presenting your own work," he told me, "especially for someone like me whose family culture wasn't big on promoting oneself publicly.  Also as a Japanese American writer who explores racial themes, I have to present a context for the complexities of my vision yet do it in a five-minute pitch."
He called the experience of a pitch session similar to "the agonies of speed dating."  Since he's a published author with several books to his credit, the agents knew immediately that he was at least a legitimate writer.  "All the agents I met with agreed to have me send them my novel.  At the same time, it seemed fairly obvious how attuned the agent was to who I am as a writer and the type of work I do.  I don't think I met an agent who actually could intuit a sense of my work in such a short time."

David guesses that pitch conferences might be better suited to authors in popular genres.  After the conference, he only sent work to one agent.  "It didn't pan out," he says.  "Though the other agents asked me to send them work, I didn't feel they would be the right fit for me or I for them.   
His blog, where he writes about race, politics, culture and literature, is on his website:
David added, "My experiences with publishing and agents have led me to the conclusion that the publishing world hasn't caught up with the diversity of writers I find in my classes and the programs and conferences I teach at. Certainly we need more agents, editors, publishers and publishing houses of color.  Recently, I was speaking at AWP to a nationally known writer of color, someone whose name everyone would recognize, but who, also, like me no longer had an agent.  I feel a huge discrepancy between the reaction when I speak in public on race or present my work in readings, and my experiences with the publishing world.  I've also had older editors or publishers who 'got' my work who were then replaced by younger colleagues who did not."

But he is very grateful to the Loft for having this conference and for the other events and programs they offer.  "We're lucky to have an institution like this in the Twin Cities," he says.  And there are success stories from the conference--happy marriages between writers and agents who meet during pitches.  At a recent Loft Pitch Conference, Kathleen Peterson met and eventually signed with her agent Marly Rusoff.  To read about her experience, click here.

There's more to pitch conferences than snagging an agent, too.  Many writers attend to update themselves on the publishing industry and what editors are looking for in books today.  David was interested in hearing from agents about the business as well.  He says the first the day of the conference, an editor delivered a long session on writing novels.  Libby enjoys the wide range of workshops offered at Grub Street's Muse and Marketplace. 

She also advises writers to check out writing conferences, classes (on site and online), and writers' groups, to keep writing.  And to consider pitching to new agents, especially in a recognized agency.   New agents may have more time and energy to devote to you, she says.

PS  A big question I often get from my clients and students:  Should I bring my manuscript to the conference?  No.  You may be more than ready to hand the whole package to an agent who expresses even the slightest interest, but agents almost never take home manuscripts.  If they want to read a sample, they'll hand you contact information and how to send it.  When you feel ready, you can email them your pages from home.

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