Pitching in Those One-on-One Appointments

Yesterday there was a comment about pitching agents and editors at conferences that I thought was important enough to address here. The question was whether a “newbie” unpublished author should pitch during their one-on-one appointments, or simply use the time to get to know an agent/editor and learn more about the process.

In the past I’ve advised newer writers to spend the one-on-one time telling about their project, and asking for feedback about story or marketability, rather than simply trying to sell it. In other words, use the meeting to learn more about how your own writing fits (or doesn’t fit) into the larger publishing arena. As an in-house editor, I never minded when writers used my appointment time to pick my brain and gather good feedback about their project. And of course, if it interested me enough, I was sure to ask them to send it to me.

However, lately I’ve been exposed to an entirely different opinion. I was with five other agents at a recent conference, all mainstream (not CBA) agents, and their stance was firm to the point of practically, shall we say, snarky:

“Do NOT take up my valuable appointment time if you don’t have something to pitch me that’s ready to sell. I am spending my time and money to be at this conference, I’m here to find new clients, and those one-on-one meetings are my only chance. Use other times – panel discussions, mealtimes – to get your questions answered. The appointments are for pitching only.”

Ahem. Let me tell you, I was shocked at the firmness with which this attitude was conveyed. I’d never heard it like that before. (And I never appreciate the “you’re wasting my time” approach.)
And yet… as a new agent, and as someone who really does spend my own money to go to a conference, and my own time away from my family since it’s usually on a weekend… I could see the point. If I don’t find a solid business prospect at a conference, then I’ve probably made a bad business decision in being there.

So now I have to tell you, I’m not sure how to answer the question. There are bound to be editors and agents who don’t mind if you use the time to pick their brain (and I know many of them in CBA personally). There are also going to be those who prefer to take appointments only with people who have something to pitch.

Here is the safe answer:

Editors: It’s probably safe to pick their brains, ask for feedback, etc. In other words, probably okay to make an appointment with them even if you’re not ready to sell your project.

Agents: Probably safer to make an appointment only if you are ready for agent representation.
You are ready for agent representation if you have a completed, polished manuscript (fiction), or a completed, polished book proposal and 3 sample chapters (nonfiction).

And about those incomplete fiction manuscripts: Be aware that an agent or editor can’t do anything with you or your project until it’s done. The best you can hope for is someone will say, “Send it to me when it’s finished.”

Someone else asked about pitching at meals, saying they’d heard that you should only do it if the tables are each hosted by a faculty member. This is good advice. But in all cases at conferences (as in life) just try to use your best judgment. If an opportunity presents itself where it seems an agent or editor would be receptive to your pitch, go for it. Look around you, gauge the situation, figure out if you will have both the time and the attention of the agent/editor, and make your decision.

And look, don’t be so hard on yourself if somebody tells you that you “did it wrong” or something. If you are a polite, smiling, kind person, that goes a long way toward smoothing over any (perceived) protocol breaches.

Sorry if all of this is confusing, but conflicting advice is everywhere and there is not always a single right answer to your questions.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] Pitching in Those One-to-one Appointments by Rachelle Gardner […]

  2. MelanieWrites on May 25, 2008 at 3:44 AM

    >Coming in way late in the game.

    I knew I asked an important question before I left for the parts of Kentucky and West Virginia where they have to pump in the sunshine.

    Now I finally remember and see it merited its own post.

    Thanks Rachelle. I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but it doesn’t sound like anyone else does either. That has to work in my favor, somehow.

  3. Chatty Kelly on May 20, 2008 at 3:44 PM

    >Thank you for this valuable blog! I am attending the She Speaks Conference in June and had a chance to meet with an agent. After much prayer and thought, I’ve decided to forgo the opportunity to “pick their brain” and not make an appointment.

    Your blog confirmed my decision, so thanks! I’ll be back to read more.

  4. Tanja on May 9, 2008 at 9:46 PM

    Thank YOu again! The advice you gave yesterday was invaluable as well. It seems rather intimidating to have a one on one with an agent, it feels like I am entering a pressure cooker situation. Knowing me I will end up making lots of small talk, using up all of my valuable time just getting comfortable.

  5. Robbie Iobst on May 9, 2008 at 3:18 PM

    >Rachelle, Thank you! I am learning so much from your blog and Mary DeMuth’s So You Wanna be Published blog. I am also checking out the writers’ blogs you recommend. I am heading to CCWC in a week and I am making a list of bits of conference advice that I’ve compiled from these different blogs. Kind of a cheat sheet for me to study. No, I am not overthinking things. :0) Anyway, you have my sincere gratitude for all the advice you give.

  6. Cheryl Barker on May 9, 2008 at 1:00 PM

    >Rachelle, I hope to attend my first conference later this year, and this is just the kind of helpful info I need. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Anita Mae on May 9, 2008 at 12:10 PM

    >Rachelle, as I will be attending my first ever conference this year (ACFW in Sep), I thank you for blogging about this.
    I hadn’t thought about the meals or what the seating arrangements would be like.
    I think I’ll head over to my Steeple Hill friends and pick their brains about this topic.
    Thanks, heaps. It’s info like this that keeps me pulling up your blog as soon as my laptop’s turned on.

  8. Katy McKenna on May 9, 2008 at 8:15 AM

    >I truly believe that conference literature (in the section where they describe the editors and agents who will be available for appointments) should include, as much as possible, each editor’s and agent’s preferences about meetings. It’s unnerving for a writer to get the vibe that she is wasting someone’s time, when no directions to prevent it were outlined.

    Since editors and agents have differing feelings about this (and evolving ones), wouldn’t it make sense for conference directors to get it all down in writing beforehand? I think that would be a win-win.

  9. Kathryn Harris on May 9, 2008 at 8:11 AM

    >Conflicting advice from agents? I’ve never heard of such a thing.

  10. Pam Halter on May 9, 2008 at 7:59 AM

    >”Someone else asked about pitching at meals.”

    My advice on this is to see what the editor or agent wants to talk about before you pitch anything during a meal. All the conferences I’ve been to have had faculty members act as hosts for at least one meal. Some editors/agents will take the time to speak to each person at the table and ask if they have questions or how the conference is going. Some will ask if anyone has anything to show them (but that doesn’t happen too often) and some will allow the conferees to take over (which is not good because some people will take the whole meal talking about themselves.)

    It also depends on the conference. At Mt. Hermon, the faculty member spoke to each person at the table, allowing each person some time to talk about their project. At the Philadelphia conference, which is more of a beginners conference, a faculty member may lead the conversation more on the level of how is the conference going.

    The best thing to do is discern what the faculty member needs. It could be that an editor/agent needs to eat their meal and rest. Yes, they’re there to serve the conference, but that doesn’t mean we should take advantage of them.

  11. Richard Mabry on May 9, 2008 at 7:14 AM

    I’ve been to a handful of conferences, pitched to a number of editors and a few agents, and I have to agree with you–there are no “right” answers. It’s all about trying to read the situation and making the proper decision. Good judgment wins out most of the time. But I’d rather err on the side of taking advantage of an opportunity than regretting not doing so.
    As for your own advice being confusing, forget that. You’re open and honest in what you post, something that’s sorely lacking in this industry. (Oh, sorry–should have posted that mini-rant as a comment to a previous column).

  12. Susan Helene Gottfried on May 9, 2008 at 6:53 AM

    >I once waited to make an agent appointment until the conference coordinator sent out the notice that this particular agent had lots of slots left. She’s a blogging agent and I felt comfortable taking one of those spare pitch appointments to talk to her about the problems I was having finding representation, even though she didn’t rep my genre.

    She knew my name and was glad to talk. In fact, we almost ran over time. I also left with a request from her for the first three chapters.

    The story’s not over yet, I don’t think.

    I would NOT have done this with an agent I wasn’t as familiar with. Or if her slate of appointments had been more solidly booked.

    Like you say, it depends on the people involved and the situation. Did I get lucky, or did I trust my gut and seize an opportunity no one else seemed interested in?

    Hard to say. But I’ve sure learned a TON from it. All positive. Well, okay. Mostly positive.