By Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, HNS Conference Board Secretary & Agent/Editor Liaison
At the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference, most pitches will take place one-on-one with you across from your agent or editor at a small table in a large nondescript hotel meeting room with other appointments occurring at the same time. In most cases, you have eight minutes to make your case in this interview with two minutes shuffling time as your overworked industry professional sees author after author throughout the day.
Here are some suggestions to help your appointment be a success.
1. Do your homework. This should have happened before you requested your appointments. This includes reading what you can about the agent or editor you are meeting with, understanding what s/he represents or publishes and how your work fits into her/his needs. It is also good to know your own work, what recent publications like it are out there and how yours is different or fills an empty niche. You might have in mind other authors this professional represents or publishes.
2. Be professional. This is not the time to wear the hot pants or the ball gown.
3. Be friendly and polite. Smile, shake hands and offer your name. Make eye contact and speak up, shy though you may feel.
4. Relax. Take a few deep breaths and smile before you go to the table. It will relax your jaw muscles. Have fun!
5. Start with your premise/high concept/pitch. These concepts come from Hollywood, and as such can seem anathema to the novel writer. Bite the bullet. Boil your story down to no more than three sentences. “A small boy sees dead people.” “A self-centered young woman grows strong as she struggles to keep her family’s plantation through the Civil War and Reconstruction afterwards.” These are examples you might recognize from popular culture.
I have heard agents/editors at the Historical Novel Conference question, “Why does everyone here start with their time/place?” This is sometimes what we think of first, having immersed ourselves in these places for so long. But consider catching your audience first with the universal problems of your characters that may make them interested even in the most distant setting.
Nonetheless, for historical novels, it is probably a good idea to mention time and place, especially if it’s popular like “Tudor England”. You might also mention your sub-genre, such as action/adventure, mystery or romance, and whether you are incorporating real historical characters, especially if they’re well-known. However, as my first agent—God rest him—told me, “Sweetheart, you can’t expect your average American to know that David killed Goliath.” So go easy on the name dropping if there’s any chance you might offend our brilliant guests by assuming they are on a first-name basis with people you’ve spent 24-7 with these last ten years.
6. If this will help, mention something about your qualifications to write this tale: Degrees, other publications and experience.
7. Be prepared to continue talking, focusing on what excites you about the story. Your excitement may be half the battle. Be coherent, use note cards if necessary. Be ready to say how many words long the manuscript is.
8. Don’t shove your manuscript across the table at the agent/editor. In fact, you don’t need to bring your manuscript to the conference at all (unless you’re also participating the Blue Pencil Café or the Cold Reads). No agent/editor wants to lug a stack of manuscripts around through airports to get home. If s/he is interested, s/he will ask you to send a few chapters or more and give you the address. This is good. This means you can put “requested material” on the envelope and find your way out of the slush pile. You might, however, provide yourself with calling cards to leave on the table and as you meet professionals away from this setting.
9. Make lemonade out of lemons. If your agent/editor doesn’t get enthusiastic, use your remaining time to learn the name of someone s/he knows who might react differently or what s/he is interested in. It’s your time. Don’t let it go to waste. Under no circumstances let disappointment make you unprofessional.
10. End the right way. Finish your thought when you’re told your eight minutes are up, part cordially and move on. When you’re alone immediately afterward, jot down a few notes to jog your memory as to addresses or material requested. This is particularly important if you’re seeing more than one professional and things might blur together.
Check out our exciting lineup of agents and editors here. There are still a few pitch sessions available at the 2019 conference. If you’ve already registered, you can add pitch sessions to your registration by going to this link.