(You’ve Got To) Know When To Fold ‘Em…

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of making a “pitch” to an editor or agent. A pitch is a very short presentation, usually a sentence or two, that conveys the spirit or premise of your book. Advice abounds on how to prepare and rehearse a pitch so it will be ready to spring from your lips, should the occasion arise. The usual scenario involves an introduction, whether through a mutual friend or on your own, and an opening. The editor or agent of your dreams looks at you with mild interest and asks what you’re working on. Bingo! You launch into your carefully prepared, brilliantly polished pitch.

And then what?

Perhaps the door to the elevator in which you are both riding opens, the agent nods and exits (hopefully not before speaking those magic words, “Send it to me”). Or there is some other necessary logistical break in the conversation.

Perhaps, however, you’re thrown together for more than a minute, the ideal pitch being around 30 seconds long. Or you’re at the bar of the convention hotel. Or at a publisher’s party. The temptation to keep going, to elaborate on your wonderful project, can be overwhelming. Unless the editor has asked for more information, this is a bad idea. It amounts to bait and switch, not with the consumer’s money but with the editor’s time. The opening (“What are you working on?”) is an invitation to a specific and very time-limited interaction. It’s not a commitment to listen to a long rambling description or shameless self-promotion. It’s like the beginning of a book, the “contract with the reader” that conveys the type of story this is. In this case, the editor has signed up to pay attention to you for a brief period of time. Of course, it’s always possible that he or she will want to hear more about this or some other project (“I’m not buying teenage vampire romances at this time, but what else do you have?”) Barring a specific request, however, it’s best to assume that the pitch is all you’ve got. You jump in . . . and then you get out.

The end of the pitch is itself a professional interaction. It can represent the difference between “I have a great book and I’m an egotistical bore who will most likely to be far more trouble than I’m worth” and “I have a great book and I’m easy to work with.” An overlong conversation can seriously undermine the strength of your pitch.

How do you know when to disengage? First, you’ve finished your pitch, the short version, not the synopsis version. Period, full stop, end of prepared paragraph. Second, the editor is not following up with questions or a request for more description. Third, the editor’s body language is signaling a desire to conclude the interaction. By body language cues, I mean anything that indicates the focus has shifted away from you. Examples would be gaze shifting from eye contact to over your shoulder or anywhere else, body leaning slightly back or turning away.

How do you end the pitch gracefully? If you’re in mid-sentence, you wrap it up. You say, “Thank you for your time. I know you have other people to meet,” or something along those lines. If you realize you’ve babbled on, you don’t compound it by apologizing and taking even more time. You smile, shake hands if it’s appropriate, and move on.

I think it’s fine but not necessary to send a brief note to the editor at the publishing house address to appreciate the interest in your project. If the editor has asked to see a proposal (synopsis and chapters), by all means refer to the conversation in your cover letter. The same would hold true if the editor were acquiring stories for a magazine or anthology, a reminder of a pleasant and respectful interaction.

If you monopolize an editor’s time at a convention, will it ruin your chances of selling your book? If the book is good enough, probably not. But given a choice between two books of equal quality, what do you think?

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online. Read my essays on the writing life and how to survive reviews in Brewing Fine Fiction.



(You’ve Got To) Know When To Fold ‘Em… — 3 Comments

  1. When you consider the number of social cripples in the SF industry, then the answer to your question is clear — no, a clumsy pitch is not a permanent handicap. HOWEVER, it is better not to be a maroon. Possibly the problem revolves around the bleedover between fandom and pro writer. Wear your Pro hat when you talk to editors, and act professional. It is OK to wear the fannish propeller beanie or Spock ears at other times at cons.

  2. Editors are used to nervous writers and the best have an uncanny ability to listen beyond the stumbles and stammers for the gem of the story. Perfection of presentation is lovely but not, as Brenda points out, necessary. A short pitch followed by a graceful exit conveys professionalism, even if the opportunity has taken you by surprise and you’re still in your Spock ears.

  3. My mother was an editor. She knew some writers are nervous, some lack social skills, some even lack a screw or two up there. Until their work was good enough she knew how to handle them, and she was genuinely interested in finding new authors.

    The ones she hated were the talentless but relentless, pitching their nonsense on her twice, thrice, endlessly. Telling an editor she must have taken a bribe to reject your MS is the best way of getting blacklisted instead of published.