Pitching at Nationals by Cassiel Knight

I wrote this for the PRO Bootcamp on all things RWA Nationals coming up at the end of July in Anaheim. Are you going? This will be my last one for a while so I’m going to make the most of it. Anyway, I thought I’d share the post I wrote about pitching at Nationals. And while the focus is Nationals, much of the pitching advice is the same anywhere. 

While pitching is stressful overall, pitching at Nationals is easily the most feared. And why wouldn’t it be? You are in a huge room filled with agents and editors, your future ’employers’, and are surrounded by your competition. With over 100 in the room at one time, the large room is loud and full of distractions.

Not a very positive way to start off a post is it?

But don’t worry. It is nerve-wracking to pitch at Nationals–I’m not going to lie to you and say it’s a piece of cake. For some it is. For others, the stomach starts turning and doesn’t stop even after you’ve walked away from the tables.

As a veteran pitcher and volunteer at the agent/editor pitch sessions, I’m here to teach you the things you can do to make it less stressful. I encourage those of you who have pitched at Nationals to come for and share your experiences and tips since we all have different ways of approaching these.

To start, let me tell you a little about what you can expect.

For the room and set up, both are often different from conference to conference. It usually means a large room for pitching and some kind of holding area. The holding area can be a separate room like it was last year, or in the same huge area like it was the year before.

Anyway, while the set-up is different, the process is the same. The agents and editors are seated at small tables in rows throughout the room. They are usually scheduled for their times in alphabetical order by first name or last name (that keeps changing but you’ll know when you get there . For example, there may be five rows with six agents and editors in each row.

When you arrive, on time! and at least 10 minutes before your session, you’ll check in and be directed to a holding area with others pitching at the same time and in the same row.

At some point, usually about 3-5 minutes before your time, you’ll be lined up based on your time and row. For example, your row contains five agents/editors: Elizabeth, Joe, John, Mary, Laura. Your pitch is to Mary. You’ll be lined up in the fourth row.

When time is called for the people before you, you’ll be directed to start walking to your row. Follow the instructions and you’ll find Mary. Then it’s time to sit down and do your thing.

At the end of the session, you’ll leave and at this point, you can go see if you can get in another pitch with someone else or come back at another time and the process starts again, or you can leave and enjoy the rest of the conference.

Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it? It is. Just pay attention to the instructions–the RWA office staff in charge of this portion of Nationals has also done this for years.

Here are some tips and insights I’ve gathered from these three years of Nationals observing conference attendees and talking to the agents and editors.

* Wear comfortable clothes. If that is dressing up for you, go for it. Whatever makes you comfortable. If it’s jeans, do it. There are a lot of schools of thought on this but from what I see, as long as you are neat, clean and presentable, it doesn’t matter if you were are in a suit, dress or jeans. When you are comfortable, that will shine through. That’s what is important.

* Be on time! I noted this above. Seriously, be on time. I know there are a lot of things going on at Nationals. I get it. Everyone gets it. It’s not an excuse and it will NOT save your appointment time. I understand and appreciate that you may have to give up something you want to do to make your appointment. I say it’s your job. Just like (I hope) you wouldn’t be late to job interview, your wedding or the birth of your child <grin>, don’t be late for your pitch appointment.

What’s the worst that can happen? You won’t get your chance in front of the agent/editor you’re dying to see that just might want you and your story. Someone could pop on here and say that they missed their appointment but were still able to meet the agent/editor. That’s great. But why take the chance?  I can’t stress this enough. If you are late, you will lose your spot.  The staff works hard to ensure it goes off smoothly–if you aren’t there, someone else gets your slot. Don’t do that to yourself; be on time.

* While you are in the holding area, be mindful of the noise volume. Even though, most often, the waiting room is separate from the main area, it can get very loud. When you are sitting in front of your E/A, the last thing you want is to be distracted by the talking and laughing from the waiting room. Keep that in mind when you are waiting. I’m not saying be silent; I’m saying moderation.

* Don’t forget to smile and introduce yourself when you sit down with the E/A. It makes everything seem more human and is a good way to establish rapport. Others may disagree with me on this but don’t hand them your business card right away. What if they don’t ask for material? Just wait until the end. Another thing, and I believe it was mentioned earlier, there are two things to make your business card stand out for the E/A: 1) Blank backside or, instead of that, 2) your story’s  tagline on the back. I’ve heard from several E/As that they like to either jot notes on the blank side to jog their memories of enticing pitches or your tagline will do the same thing.

Oh, and a note on bringing material. Sigh. I’ve seen and heard it done successfully but in 90% of the cases, don’t bring or hand them material. If you feel you must, have it with you and if they ask, only then, hand it out. More times than not, they aren’t going to ask. They don’t need the paper. I know Nationals, at New York, was different last year and some asked for material on site. But they were local. Most of them aren’t going to be this year. And the good thing about email, is you can simply email the material later. I did that last year. I met, informally, with an agent and she asked for my full. Obviously, I didn’t have it with me, but I emailed it to her when I got back to my room. The same thing can hold true for a requested partial.

* Keep your actual pitch short. You get 10 minutes but don’t fill it up with the pitch. Give the E/A plenty of time to ask questions, at least three minutes. Who knows? With that extra time, your answer may be what they use to ask for more. And you want to leave time for that too. Because there are a bunch of us whose job is to boot pitchers from their seats and I hate to do that. So, be respectful of the person coming behind you and leave plenty of time for you to get those all important request instructions.

On another note, I know it’s tempting to rattle on and on about your book trying to pack in as much story as you can but resist doing that. Even if the E/A is silent and you are nervous. It’s a well-known technique that interviewers use that if they are silent long enough, the interviewees will ultimately say something that will rule them out. Now, I’m not saying that the E/As do that. But don’t leave yourself open for that to happen. I’ve seen it. It’s sad.

* Practice your pitch as much as you can so it sounds smooth but don’t fret if you find yourself having to read from your cards. Try not to, but don’t worry if you have to. I’ve heard from E/As on both sides–some think it means you don’t know your story well enough while others understand you are nervous so they are okay with you reading. If you keep your pitch short and concise, you should be able to memorize it enough. Keep your cards available in case your nervousness gets to be too much.

* This is a big one and believe me, the E/As see this happening. It’s not always possible to, by the time you signed up, get the E/A you really wanted (hooray for you if you did). Hopefully, you’ve done your research and gotten someone else who might be a fit. You will get an opportunity to find open slots with other E/As. Be smart about it and don’t just pitch to any E/A that’s on the list. As I said, I’ve volunteered extensively at Nationals the last few years and I’ve seen those who flit from E/A to E/A with no apparent method to this madness. I noticed it. And believe me, the E/As do. Not in a good way, either. To them, it means you haven’t taken the time to make sure you are pitching your story to the one who it fits best. Sure, sometimes it isn’t always easy to know but do the best you can. Take those extra pitches but take them smartly. Don’t throw pasta against the wall and hope it sticks.

Pitching is done. Now what? Short and sweet. Take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back or seek your friends to do that for you, and above all, if you get a request SEND IT IN! Yes, I put this in all caps for a reason.

A variety of E/As tell me that over 80% of their requests they never see. Never. And another 10% could come in a year later. Their manners dictate they will go ahead and take a look at it but the likelihood that they still want it is slim. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but it is rare. So, send it in. Take time to polish it but send it in at least three months of Nationals.

Hope you’ve found this useful. If you have questions about anything I’ve missed, don’t hesitate to post a question.


Posted on July 5, 2012, in General and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is really just wonderful, thorough, substantive advice. I teach at New York Writers Workshop “Perfect Pitch” conference and hear from editors after the doors have shut and the pitches are over the following: Short is better, conversational is best. Some of the most successful pitches I’ve seen have been not much more than a log line, and then a few minutes of comfortable convo exchanged about the industry, who the writer is, the editor’s career. This is a business of personalities in addition to words. Let yours shine–it’s a clue that your writing will, too.


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