- Polish and polish some more: Before you approach someone to take on your "baby," make sure she's in her Sunday best. This includes having your little darling free of typos and errors. It should be edited to within an inch of its word count, and had several non-family/friend readers give it a critique. If you don't have a topnotch writers or critique group, get one. Your manuscript will be better for each set of eyes that look it over.
- KISSS: Keep It Short and Sweet, Stoopid: The last thing you want when describing your work to someone is to see their eyes glaze over before you've even gotten to meat of your presentation. Know and practice your concise description and be able to explain your novel's plot in thirty seconds or less. What popular books, movies or characters help show its flavor? Familiarity breeds relaxation, and as trite as it sounds, practice really does make perfect. Know what you're going to say before you approach an agent/editor so you don't ramble and lose your train of thought and your audience's interest.
- It's okay to "cheat" sometimes: I studied my notes and rehearsed my pitch until I felt comfortable, but for extra insurance against a bad case of nerves or freak bout of laryngitis, I had a few note cards tucked away in a pocket in case I went blank. Unlike political speeches, it's perfectly okay to memorize talking points. However, it's never okay to say you have a 100,000-word polished manuscript when you really only have four sketchy chapters or an outline.
- Look for opportunities, but don't stalk: There are basically three categories of conference attendees you always see -- Chihuahuas (shy and skittish, they miss opportunities to pitch their work and mingle with other writers, wishing they were home instead); Boston Terriers (adventurous writers who zero in on ways to hobnob with others in a friendly way); and Doberman Pinschers (all-out territory encroachers who attach themselves to the legs of speakers/agents/editors at every moment including meals and bathroom breaks. "Down, boy," is not in their vocabulary, so they obnoxiously hound others).
- Relax yourself: Agents and others in the publishing industry are people too. The majority won't bite or come across as ogres, unless maybe you're a "Doberman." When pitching your work or speaking with them, try to remember they are as interested in finding the next great writer as you are in being one. Speak in a relaxed, self-assured manner that shows your confidence as if you are talking to a friend or good old college professor. They know writers/authors who pitch to them are doing so in anxiety-producing circumstances and won't fault them for it.
- Two simple words: Like Mom always said, don't forget to say "thank you." Many agents, publishers and editors spend a great deal of time traveling to conferences and events. It can't be easy (or always profitable) leaving home and family to live out of a suitcase. Let them know you appreciate their time, even if your pitch fell short or they aren't looking for work in your genre. A post-conference thank-you note is a nice idea too. On this point, I'd like to personally thank the literary agents I spoke with at Pen-to-Press: Laura Blake Peterson with Curtis Brown, you made my virgin pitch easy and comfortable; Melissa Flashman (Trident Media Group), thank you for the enjoyable conversation; Paige Wheeler (Folio Literary Management), I appreciate you listening and asking good questions; and Jaimee Garbacik (The Literary Group), thanks for the opportunity and quick reply. Cherry Adair and Natalie Collins, you were great Instructors and will always be my "peeps."
Most of these tips apply to querying an agent or industry professional as well as making a face-to-face pitch. Remember, agents, whether seasoned or new to the game, make their living signing on good authors. Everyone wants to be a winner, but if you strike out with your pitch, don't give up. Research, re-write and edit if suggested, and make a new game plan for the next opportunity.