Pitch Perfect: Are you ready for conference season?

Posted Jun 8 2015, 10:11 pm in , ,

writers_night_out_01If you’ve been at a writers’ conference recently, or any major book convention, you’ve probably seen them: slightly harried but always inquisitive publishing professionals, whose eyes and ears are wide open even when they’re at their most exhausted, looking for the Next Big Thing. Or the Current Big Thing who’s thinking about a career change. Or the Maybe Big Thing who just needs a push in the right direction.

Some of these professionals are agents at the beginning of their careers, or editors who just got that all-important “go” to acquire. But some are also industry giants, who know that today’s newcomer will be tomorrow’s superstar. All of them are on the lookout for talent. And they never know when it might be standing in the elevator next to them.

Which brings us to the author. That’s right: you! In your own mind you know that being put on the spot at a conference *could* happen. That you *may* be asked that most weighty of questions: “so, what do you write?” or its twin brother: “so, tell me what you’re working on now.” But are you really ready for it?

It’s not as easy a question to answer as you might think. To dip briefly into a sports analogy, many of us go to conferences with that queasy feeling we remember from Junior High basketball practice, that “please, no, don’t throw me the ball” reaction that is born of the fear of flubbing the pass. But prepping for conferences and either chance or planned meetings with publishing professionals doesn’t have to send you running for the locker room. This five-step plan for high-performance pitching will make sure your head is always in the game!

  • Dress for success – This is the easiest to manage of the five steps, and yet it still can be something that is overlooked. If you are an author at a conference with a book to sell, you should dress like you would for any professional encounter within the writing industry. For authors, that typically means something along the lines of business casual wear, clothing that flatters you and MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD. If you’ve worked with Personal Branding at all, you’ve likely identified your Industry Brand, and your clothes should match your Brand. What’s appropriate depends on you, but skip the flip flops and yoga pants if you want to be taken seriously.
  • Get your game face on – We’re back to your Industry Brand here, and for good reason. If you’ve identified yourself as “professional, classy and confident”, then your expression and demeanor should match that Brand. If you prefer to present yourself as “fun, engaging and enthusiastic”, then a smile will be your most important accessory! But whatever your Brand, focus on expressing your energy in a positive, engaging manner, welcoming the attention of both your peers and publishing professionals.
  • Talk to people – Remember that your conference Brand action plan should always include “talking to others”. There are many writers out there who are, legitimately, introverts. They spend all day working on their books, rarely coming out of their writing caves. And this is great for the creative process, but the program is different for a conference. You should plan on talking – even if it’s to your friends, your table mates, the lady at the raffle table. Why? Because talking warms up your vocal chords and gets you into the mood to express yourself. So when you DO have that chance meeting in the elevator with the publishing professional of your dreams, you’re not trying to remember how your mouth works. It sounds silly, but it’s true! Count on needing to talk, and you’ll be able to talk when it counts.
  • Get your story straight – Your work is always the most important element of your Brand, and you’ll need three things to be able to manage a pitch successfully.
    • A BRIEF sentence about your book that tells someone what it’s about in a way that makes them say “Ooo. Tell me more.” This does not have to be the MOST. INCREDIBLE. ONE-LINER. EVER! It simply needs to succinctly position your book. “I’m working on a modern-day twist on the Taming of the Shrew, only the Shrew is a man” would do it. “My story is about a man who falls in love with his perfect woman – only to find out she’s made up her entire personality as a member of a witness protection program” would also work. This blurb is not supposed to explain your entire book, remember—just to get someone else to say “Tell me more!”
    • A 15-second to 30-second “blurb” for your book, similar to what you’d see on a book jacket. The agent or editor at this point doesn’t want War & Peace. They want to be hooked and intrigued enough to learn… you guessed it! Even more. So be ready to share a little about your book’s key hooks – where it is set, what the premise is, your hero, your heroine, their goals, their conflicts, whatever REALLY sets your book apart. The differences are important, and so are the similarities! If your book is reminiscent of a particular author’s style “but with a twist”—mention it! Do NOT say too much here. Because you want to be ready for item number three…
    • Answers to the Follow-up questions. These are clutch. Based on your blurb, what are the most likely questions that an agent or editor will ask? The ever-popular one is “so, what happens next”, but there’s also “okay, tell me a little more about your hero,” or “and why is your heroine trying to find the Chalice of Death?” BE PREPARED for these – and yes, you get bonus points if you try your blurb out on your friends and then answer their questions.

Relax – Ha! Easier said than done, right? But being comfortable and relaxed is your greatest Branding ally, so bear this in mind. These publishing professionals are actively rooting for you to succeed. In most cases where you’re “officially” pitching, they are patient, kind, and generous with their encouragement. In any case when they ask you “so what are you working on?” they are truly interested in what you have to say. If it doesn’t work for them, they’ll tell you, but it won’t be because you aren’t a Toastmasters-quality speaker. So when you get the chance to pitch – take a deep breath, smile, and let your story do the talking.

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