I spend a great deal of time helping both novelists and non-fiction writers prepare to pitch agents. We polish the pages of the book, develop proposals that frame the work in terms of audience and market, determine the best agents to pitch to, customize the pitches to let the agents know exactly why they are receiving the pitch, and come up with a pitch strategy which often takes into account holidays, news headlines and even the writer’s superstitions about dates. Despite all this preparation, I am often struck by how unprepared writers are for agents to say yes.
Agents sometimes never respond – that is true.
And sometimes the response is a rejection letter – also true.
But they also often say YES – and you have to believe in this reality or you risk making embarrassing mistakes.
I have a client whom I shall call Bonnie. She elected to send a pitch to an agent who only takes exclusive pitches. In other words, if you want to pitch to her, you can ONLY pitch to her. In return, she promises to get back to you within two weeks.
The only problem is that this agent also makes it very clear that she only works with non-fiction authors who have a large and established platform, and Bonnie did not have this.
She sent the pitch off, regardless – not really believing that the agent might say yes -- and within three minutes received an email from the agent who loved her pitch and wanted to know her “numbers” – the number of followers she had.
Bonnie had to say she did not have the numbers the agent wanted – and so the agent said, “Thanks anyway.”
I still considered this a good experience, because it proved to the writer the validity of her idea and the power of her pitch, but it was also somewhat embarrassing.
I have another client whom I shall call Alexandra. We had a carefully calibrated pitch plan, and on the day the first batch of pitches went out, a friend offered to make her an introduction to the friend’s own agent – a very well respected person in the field. My client accepted, contacted the agent with a version of her pitch, and within an hour, the well-respected agent had requested her manuscript.
Sounds great, yes?
Well it was – until two of the agents to whom she had pitched that morning also requested the manuscript. Now Alexandra was in a pickle, because when a friend does you a favor and makes you an introduction, it is on the assumption that you are giving that agent an exclusive look at the manuscript. Alexandra had to write to the other agents and say that she was not able to send the pages they requested right away. One of those agents was not pleased and wrote a somewhat harsh note – another embarrassing moment that could have been prevented by realizing that the agents might, in fact, all say yes.
These two examples are “interim” yes moments – but what happens when an agent gives the BIG yes and offers to represent you? I often see is writers who haven’t given a moment’s thought as to what they will say when an agent says yes. The writer is caught flat-footed – unsure what to ask or what might happen next.
They key thing to remember is that signing with an agent is entering into a business agreement. Yes, the agent may love your work and that may feel like it means she loves you, but she is primarily signing you because she thinks your book can make money. You need to be prepared to ask some tough questions about her plan for doing that.
Here is a short list to get you thinking, in case you are in the midst of pitching now, or will soon be:
1. What, if anything, does she want you to change in your story or manuscript, or in your proposal?
2. Why does she want you to change it? Is it based on her taste or opinions, or does she have inside information about what sells or doesn’t in this genre or what the editors she interacts with like or don’t like?
3. What is the timeline for making the edits? When does she hope to start pitching?
4. How involved will she be in the edits? Can you send her a chapter at a time? Will she go back and forth with you on pages? Or does she want to see the whole revision when you’re finished?
5. Which editors does she expect to pitch to and why has she selected them as targets for your book? This will help you get a sense for the vision she has for your book.
6. Will she pitch in waves, or all at once?
7. Does she think the book could inspire multiple offers? If so, would she consider holding an auction (where multiple editors make bids for the work)?
8. What is her vision for the book? Hardback launch? Paperback launch? Hardback, paper, and audio?
9. What is the ballpark for the kinds of offers she expects you will receive?
10. How long does she normally keep a book our on submission before giving up on it?
11. What is her vision for your next book, and the one after that? Does she have a vision for your writing career?
12. Whose career does she think yours might emulate?
13. Who does she work with for movie rights and foreign rights? Some small agencies have partnerships and alliances, whereas big agencies might have those functions in-house.
14. What are the characteristics of an ideal client?
15. What are the characteristics of your worst nightmare of a client
Be ready for yes. You never know when you’re going to hear it.