It’s 4:30 on Saturday afternoon and it’s just hit me that exactly one week ago at this precise time I was doing one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done by choice. I was attending something called a “Pitch Slam.”
In early December I attended a webinar sponsored by Writer’s Digest. As a result I started getting emails from them on a daily basis telling me what other classes/seminars/books they offer. One of the emails during Christmas week advertised the winter 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference. I’d heard of this conference so I clicked to read more about it. The focus seemed to be on traditional vs. e-publishing, with an emphasis on use of social media for marketing—all things I spend a lot of time thinking about these days. The conference offered something else I’d already heard of: their well-known Pitch Slam—two hours of time where the conference attendees get the opportunity to have three-minute one-on-one chats with as many of the fifty agents in attendance as they can manage.
I didn’t know if I should be scared, excited, or pleased when I realized that several of the agents had been at the top of my query list since I compiled it last summer. Then I read the conference dates and remembered why I’d initially crossed this conference off as an impossibility. The conference was slated for January 21-23 in NYC—not a great time to plan travel in the north east, which I’m well aware of as an ex-New Yorker and current New Englander.
Even though I was certain we wouldn’t go, I forwarded the email to my long-time critique partner Karen Booth (http://karenbooth.net/). She and I share all our writerly information (and often the same brain). I’m not sure which one of us was in charge of the gray matter over Christmas week, but somehow we both wound up deciding “let’s go” and we booked the conference, our hotel room, and our plane (her) and train (me) tickets. Then I’m pretty sure we both stopped breathing for a while when we realized we’d just paid money to put ourselves through literary speed dating with some of our first choice agents.
We wrote our pitches. We rewrote our pitches. We worked on each other’s pitches. I skyped Karen into my local writer’s group and she gave all of them her pitch. They all critiqued both of our pitches. We seriously considered pitching each other’s books (which I still think would have been a good idea, because we literally quote one another’s books all the time and it might have been less nerve wracking than pitching our own work…not to mention that we’re both named Karen…but we decided to pitch our own stuff).
I had a series of calamities in the week before the conference. I came down with a horrendous case of the stomach flu one week before we were due to leave. It was the day I’d planned to spend all day reciting my pitch to commit it to memory. I did, in fact, spend the whole day committing my pitch to memory—and it made me laugh (in a tragic kind of way), because for two weeks I’d been joking that I’d be happy if I made it through my pitch without throwing up, and there I was, practicing my pitch, throwing up. At least I got it all out of my system (literally) before the conference.
It took me several days to recover from my bout with the stomach bug, and the nerves about the conference weren’t helping to settle my tummy, but I muddled through the week, saltines in hand. My friend came down with a horrendous cold, which I was certain I would catch (but didn’t), I aggravated an old back injury which I was sure wouldn’t heal in time (but did), then the night before we were due to leave for the conference the weather decided not to cooperate. I was traveling with my friend Kelley (one of my local critique group friends who was attending the conference with us, but not pitching her book). She called me on Thursday night with some more stressful news. The car service that was supposed to drive us to the Boston Amtrak station on Friday morning called and told her there was no way they’d be able to get us there because too much snow was expected.
This call came on Thursday night at 6pm. The snow was forecast to start around midnight. After several frantic calls back and forth we decided the only way we’d actually make it to the conference was to head to Boston right away. I booked us a room with my Marriott rewards card, we packed like two women possessed, and within three hours we were on our way to Boston. Nothing like a last minute panicked change of plans to settle your stomach.
We awoke to a very snow-covered Boston and news reports about all sorts of delays on the road. Had we waited, we would never have caught our train. We made our way through slushy streets and got to the train station with time to spare. One step into a particularly deep puddle by the curb let me know that my boots were no longer waterproof. Eww.
Kelley did her best to convince me to pitch to her on the train, but I was so nervous I only managed to do it once, and even then I couldn’t look at her without laughing. I recited my pitch in my head, from memory, so many times I was starting to drive myself insane. Karen texted that her plane was delayed and all the other flights for the day had been canceled, so that gave me something new to worry about, which was good, because the old worries just weren’t cutting it.
We finally all made it to the hotel and Kelley headed straight to the conference because she was registered for the entire weekend (all three days of seminars) while Karen and I had registered for Saturday only (because of her flight schedule and the fact that we wanted to spend Friday practicing our pitches). I walked to the nearest shoe store and bought myself a new, completely waterproof, pair of boots then sat in the lobby to await Karen’s arrival.
One of my pre-conference distraction techniques, I mean obsessions, I mean activities was meal-planning, so I’d already made us a reservation for dinner at Thalia. When Kelley finished with her last seminar we headed off to our meal where we dined on zucchini pasta with fava beans and Serrano ham (Kelley), mushroom ravioli with porcini truffle sauce (Karen) and sweet potato gnocchi with pesto (me). Kelley filled us in on what we’d missed at the lectures and Karen and I were pleased to learn that our pitches contained all the elements they were supposed to: our name, our book title, genre, word count, a log line, brief summary, and where it fits in the marketplace. Knowing that made us both feel better. A little. Then we went back to our hotel room to practice.
In our registration packets we found a piece of paper that listed all the agents on one side and had a map of the ballroom with table numbers on the other side. We scribbled the agents’ names on the map and tried to decide some sort of strategy to make sure we hit our top choices. We still had no idea if we’d be pitching sitting or standing, so if anyone is reading this and wondering, the agents sit at the tables, and the pitching writers sit in a chair facing them.
For the rest of the evening Karen and I pitched each other, we pitched silently in our heads, she pitched the wall sconce while I was in the shower, I pitched the towel rack in the bathroom (though I’m pretty sure the sink and hairdryer were listening). We slept fitfully.
We awoke and dressed in our carefully chosen professional-but-not-boring-suitable-but-not-uncomfortable-still-looks-like-us-but-slightly-dressier clothes and headed down to breakfast. The restaurant at the hotel didn’t look crowded so we went in and sat down in a booth. The waiter asked if we wanted the buffet and we said yes without even asking what was on it or how much it cost. Kelley and Karen ate bountiful healthy meals of assorted fruits and berries, yogurt parfaits, bagels, juice, and coffee. I ate a small cherry Danish because it was all that I could manage. The buffet was $30 a person. It was a good Danish, but not $30 good. Oh well.
Karen and I attended the session on Marketing Yourself in the Digital Age by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez. If you have a chance to catch a lecture by him, do it. He was an awesome speaker, entertaining, down-to-earth, and super-knowledgeable. His presentation was very interactive and he tried to get to know a bit about the attendees. The writers ranged in age from late teens to mid-seventies, were working on projects ranging from romance to memoir to self help, a few were published, many already had some sort of web presence or were actively using some form of social media, all were interested in using social media more effectively. Karen and I both agreed that the seminar was helpful; it reaffirmed some things we were doing right (having a website, owning our own domain name, making sure our websites come up as the first search item when we google ourselves, having twitter and facebook accounts, writing about stuff that actually ties in to both our books and our lives), and gave us some insight into how to use it more effectively (making contact with people who might be interested in reading our books, not just with other writers).
The next session was a panel on Do-It-Yourself Publishing (and how to be successful at it). This session was very different since it was a panel of multiple people (Moriah Jovan, April Hamilton, Patricia V. Davis, David Carnoy and moderator Jane Friedman). This was also extremely informative as each person on the panel spoke about his/her own experience with self-publishing and offered insight into what to expect, what not to expect, and what you should be prepared to do. They addressed a ton of questions from the attendees and offered some unique perspectives based on personal experiences. Anything that could hold my attention with the prospect of pitch slam a mere two hours away had to be pretty interesting and this panel had me totally engaged in the discussion.
Karen and I had been wondering what was going to happen at “lunch”. All it said on the conference website was “lunch”, no mention of whether that meant six hundred angst-filled writers running down Seventh Avenue in search of comfort food in under an hour or some sort of meal that was provided as part of the conference. We were relieved to hear the announcement that box lunches were available in the hallway. Not only was food provided with no need for thought or venturing out into the frigid, windy outdoors, but there was a choice of sandwiches. The box lunches contained a sandwich (ham and cheese on rye (me), or turkey and cheese on a roll (Karen and Kelley), or assorted grilled veggies on some type of bread I can’t remember (guy sitting next to me whose sandwich I chose not to ogle)), a bag of potato chips, a hefty brownie, and an apple. There were water bottles and soda, too, because a dehydrated writer is never a pretty sight.
We sat at one of the banquet tables and met up with Kelley to compare notes. She’d attended Putting Fire in Your Fiction (with Donald Maass), which she thought was great, and Building the Perfect Plot (with James Scott Bell), which she found very informative. We chitchatted with the other authors at our table, all of whom were working on memoirs, then Karen and I excused ourselves to go back to our room and mentally gear up for the pitch slam.
After some tooth brushing, Tylenol taking and minor primping we decided to practice our pitches on each other a few more times. Hers sounded great. Much smoother than it had the night before. Mine, on the other hand, came out as though I were trying to give it in a foreign language. The pitch I’d had memorized perfectly the day before was suddenly a jumble. Even my log line was coming out wrong. Minor panic ensued.
I listened to her pitch then tried again. More garbling. After my fifth failed attempt I decided practicing was counterproductive. I lint-rollered my black sweater again (I have two long-haired cats at home and although they didn’t accompany me on the trip they sent along little mementos by rubbing on my suitcase while I was packing). I attempted to dry my sweaty palms. I tried to remember to keep breathing.
We arrived at the waiting area outside the ballroom to find people lining up and crowding the still-closed doors. I had flashbacks of lining up to get into concerts and opening nights of movies (it could have been because the crowds looked similar or it could have been a hallucination based on the fact that I was dehydrating through my palms—not sure). The patient Writer’s Digest staff members were trying to guide/steer/corral the ever-increasing group of writers and get us to form what was supposed to be a snaking line, but it wasn’t working. The tension level was palpable, no one knew where the “end of the line” was, people were starting to get snippy. I’m fairly sure I resembled a Chihuahua at the vet—minor trembling and buggy eyes.
Karen told me that my being so nervous was calming her down. I was glad one of us was benefiting from my anxiety. Then we started chatting to the woman, Jennifer, who was in line next to us. She looked, if possible, more nervous than me—and she was. She was there alone, her heart was racing, she was freaking out completely. Karen and I wound up talking with her and the conversation helped distract all three of us until the line finally started to move. There was no pushing or shoving, but it was fairly close to a stampede.
The tables were set up in the ballroom just as they were on the little diagram we’d been given. Name tags hung on the wall over each one so you could see who was sitting where. Some agents already had long lines by the time I entered so I just kept walking until I got to the far end of the room. As luck would have it two of the agents I wanted to speak with were sitting near each other and had fairly short lines. I got on one line and started rereading my pitch, desperately hoping my memory would kick in when I actually had my turn to talk.
A staff person rang a cowbell, which made me jump several inches into the air—I startle with loud noises under normal circumstances, under this kind of stress I was downright skittish. I watched as the line dwindled from two people to one person, flinching each time the bell sounded, then it was my turn. I sat. I pitched. I hoped my heart would continue beating. I didn’t flub. The agent, bless her kind heart, said “that was a great pitch and you delivered it well”. I finally took a breath. She asked me a few questions and I realized I was actually having a normal conversation with her. I even made a joke. She handed me her card and asked for the first three chapters. I remembered to ask if she wanted them as an attachment or pasted into the email, then the bell rang again and I was off to the next line.
I was thrilled to get a request (one request was my goal for the day and I’d already reached it—actually, remaining conscious was my goal for the day, so really I’d exceeded my expectations), and it was certainly comforting to hear that my pitch was in good shape, but it was still nerve wracking to give it again. Two of the agents I pitched had very long lines, so I waited over half an hour to see each of them. Tension levels definitely increase when you’re standing in line with a bunch of other impatient, equally nervous people, but everyone was friendly and I managed to talk with people in each line. I handed out mints, which most people seemed grateful to receive. I sipped from my water bottle trying to maintain a balance between not having cotton mouth and not needing to leave my precious spot in line to go pee (success on both counts).
I saw Karen midway through; we’d each gotten a request so we were both feeling relieved. I saw my new friend Jennifer from the pre-pitch line and we gave each other the thumbs up; she’d also gotten a request. The staff announced that they’d be handing out “last person in line cards” and that if someone in line had that card you couldn’t line up for that agent any longer. I pitched what I thought would be my last agent then headed to the end of the ballroom, looking for Karen. Instead I found Jennifer, looking much calmer. We compared statistics and she pointed to the agent who had asked her for a full. I congratulated her and she asked if I’d pitched that agent. I said I hadn’t had time and Jennifer said “there’s no one in her line, go now.” So I did. Since there was no “last person in line” the agent was still open to pitches. I sat down, pitched, and lo and behold she asked for the first 50-75 pages. (Thanks Jennifer, for making me talk to one last agent!).
In my crazy-hectic two-hour pitch slam I managed to talk to a total of six agents and came away with requests from five of them. I made a few new friends. I didn’t pass out. I’m delighted that I received requests and I’m even happier to know that my pitch was coherent enough to yield them. There are a few other conferences I’m considering attending that offer a single session with an agent or editor as part of the conference. Pitching ONE agent will still be stressful, but compared to pitching a roomful of them, one after another, with a cowbell ringing, a single meeting at an appointed time will seem relaxing. (Remind me of that when I freak out pre-next-conference, please.)
For anyone planning on attending a future Writer’s Digest Conference, I say go. Be prepared to be nervous, but rest assured, you’ll make it through and come out with a lot of knowledge and experience, and a new friend or two. My advice? Bring a critique partner/buddy—mine was invaluable. Bring mints—everyone was so happy to see them whenever I took the tin out of my purse. And breathe (the mints will make this a more pleasant experience, too).
To read about how Karen and I celebrated our survival and our requests, please see my blog post about the best dinner I had in the past week: http://karenstivali.com/?p=110