Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Face to Face: Pitching to an Agent at the London Book Fair

by Catriona Troth

Pitches, on the whole, are an author’s nightmare. Generally speaking, they require a synopsis, some opening chapters and a covering letter.  But just how long is a synopsis?  How many chapters, pages, words do you include in your opening material? What are you supposed to put in a covering letter?  And how on earth do you convey what makes your writing unique, when you have just squeezed eighty thousand words down to a few hundred?

To make matters worse, each agent has their own guidelines, so a synopsis package that is perfect for Agent A may be entirely inappropriate for Agent B – even if you have done your research and know that they are both supposedly interested in the kind of book you are writing.  And – trickiest hurdle of all – how does an author find out if a particular agent has just closed their submissions window for women’s commercial fiction, or is actively looking for Young Adult dystopian fiction?

LitFactor is a new, online service that aims to provide authors with all the information they need about literary agents , updated daily. New agents, agents moving, new lists opening.  Who’s accepting, who isn’t.  

As it says on the LitFactor website: “Writers send off endless submissions to a long list of agents, only to hear nothing but the deafening sound of silent rejection. They become frustrated by the lack of feedback and can remain utterly oblivious to the nuances of how literary agents actually operate. At the receiving end, literary agents are constantly inundated by a veritable deluge of irrelevant, poorly-judged submissions that they have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through.”

The service was launched at the London Book Fair 2013, with the LitFactor Pitch – an opportunity for authors to present their book proposal to a literary agent, face-to-face, and get feedback on their ideas and submission material.

If you’ve attended any previous London Book Fair, you’ll know that literary agents tend to be secreted away upstairs in the International Rights Centre, isolated from any accidental contact with importunate authors. So to bring agents downstairs, in amongst the milling hoards in the Author Lounge, was a radical step.

Altogether, thirteen agents and seventy authors took part over three days. And Words with Jam was on hand to interview some of those authors who were lucky enough to make their pitches. 
Of the small sample that we interviewed, none had approached their pitch with the expectation of landing a deal there and then.

“I did it for the experience, and to make a contact for when I’m ready to make a paper submission,” said Emma Chilcote, who pitched her psychological thriller to Ariella Feiner from United Agents. “I almost cancelled at the last minute because the book isn’t even finished yet.  I was incredibly nervous, but Ariella was very approachable.  It all felt very informal and she gave me some really good advice on preparing submission letters.”

How had she prepared in advance?

“I had my three chapters and a synopsis, and I’d spoken my pitch aloud. I was aware that my synopsis was just a recital of the plot. But she explained how even the pitch and the synopsis must show off your writing, and that you should try and include some of the atmosphere of the story.”

Her experience was echoed by that of Words with Jam fan, Rachel Featherstone, who pitched her women’s commercial novel to Lorella Belli.

“I didn’t want to have a finished book and the perfect agent, and not have any idea how to make a pitch. This seemed a great opportunity to polish my skills.”  She too had a synopsis and cover letter prepared.  “I asked the readers of my blog and they pointed me to some great sources of advice.  I worked at going from a single line, to two or three lines, to a paragraph.  In fact, Lorella put me so much at my ease, I went off my brief.  She advised me how to keep it sharp.”

Belli also advised Featherstone to relate the book to contemporary novels. "Someone had previously suggested I compare the book to Bridget Jones Diary.  But Lorella said that agents would find that ‘so ten years ago’.  You have to find your niche, she said, otherwise you are just like everyone other author trying to publish Women’s Commercial Fiction.”

Someone else wresting with the same dilemma was Maria Constantine, also pitching to Lorella Belli. Maria, a veteran of the London Book Fair, had prepared her first submission pack after attending LBF11 two years ago.  And after attending seminars over the previous two days, she had sharpened her pitch further to focus on the commercial viability of the book.

“I think you have to be very sure of who you are as a writer to make a pitch like this in person. We writers are used to putting things down in print, not articulating out loud.”

So what feedback had she received?

“She asked me how my voice and my book are going to stand out from the crowd.  But that's very hard unless you begin to read a few chapters.”

We hope to bring you a more extended article on LitFactor in a future issue of Words with Jam.

Catriona Troth grew up in two countries, uses two names, and has had two different careers. She tries always to remember who she is at any one time, but usually finds she has at least two opinions about everything. She is the latest member of the Triskele Books writers’ collective and the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven 

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