Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make When Pitching Literary Agents

I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities for pitching literary agents at writers’ conferences and pitch events. I’ve also spent time in the query trenches, cold querying literary agents, participating in Twitter pitch contests, and learning about query etiquette to improve the odds of getting a manuscript request.

I’m still in the query trenches, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. Now, when I pitch literary agents, I know I’m presenting everything the agent needs to evaluate my project.

I know my pitch is strong, and I’m backing it up with a great bio. I understand how my project fits with their manuscript wishlist. Everything in my control is taken care of. It’s up to them to decide if they’d like to read.

Here’s the harsh t about querying.

Most queries lead to rejection. It’s just the way the business works. Agents say yes to approximately 1% of the projects that land in their inboxes. The more popular or known an agent is, the bigger their client list. The fewer new clients they need to take on. See this survey of debut YA authors for a deep dive into the numbers around querying and rejection.

If you hate these odds, self-publishing and small presses are option. If you want to be published by a Big 5 publisher, you need an agent to get your foot in the door. To get the agent, you need luck, good timing, and a standout submission.

You can’t control your timing. That agent may have signed a similar client last week.

You can’t control luck (but you can increase the odds by putting yourself out there).

That means all you can control is the work you put out there.

Understanding what to do (and what not to do) when pitching literary agents can give you that confidence you need to keep putting yourself out there.

What Not to Do When Pitching Literary Agents

Here are the top mistakes I’ve seen writers make when pitching literary agents. These are things I’ve witnessed at conferences, heard agents complain about on social media, or overheard in online forums.

1. Read from a script/piece of paper

A face to face meeting is a chance to make a human connection with a literary agent. If you’re reading from note cards, you’re missing that chance.

I get it – you’re nervous. Me too! This is a big deal!

But memorize your pitch. Practice at home. Practice with other writers. Reread your pitch while you’re waiting to meet the agent.

When you’ve got your three minutes or ten minutes with them, look them in the eye and talk to them like a normal person. It really does make a difference.

Edit: Zoom pitch events are much more low-stakes! You can read from a notecard without the agent knowing. While your pitch will be stronger if you can rattle it off for memory and look them in the eye, it isn’t a dealbreaker the way it is for in-person pitch events.

2. Look around/act distracted

In-person pitch events often have long lines to talk to popular agents. While waiting, If you find yourself looking around at other conversations or feeling jealous that the guy behind you seems to be having a great conversation with the agent who didn’t ask you for pages, that can sting.

Pitching sessions can be competitive, and that can get in your head.

If you’re in a big room, it’s natural for other conversations to distract you. Do your best to block it out and focus on the person behind the table.

Maybe you haven’t gotten the results you’ve wanted from another agent, but you aren’t going to get them from this agent if you can’t stay present in the moment. So relax, breathe, and try to put everyone else in the room out of your mind while you’re meeting with a literary agent.

3. Pitch literary agents something outside their genre

If you pitch an agent something they don’t represent, you’re wasting time you could’ve spend pitching an agent who is open to your genre.

Do your research before the conference to find out who is there, what they represent, and who appeals to you. Make a tiered list and focus on the people you must pitch first. If you don’t get to meet with everyone, you can always cold query.

My favorite places to research agents include Manuscript WishList, but there are many places to look.

What if you don’t get to choose who to talk to, or if an agent right off the bat says they’re not looking for projects like yours, but you’ve still got two minutes with them?

You can either thank them, shake their hand, and walk away (best when you can get in line to speak with another agent) or you can pivot. Ask what agents at their literary agency take your genre. Ask them to critique your pitch or first page so you can strengthen it.

Even if someone isn’t a great match for your book, they can offer you valuable feedback. In rare cases, I’ve heard of authors signed by agents they met at conferences who didn’t represent their genre – but who were so impressed by their pitch they had to represent that author!

4. Not pitch the plot

Recently, I helped a fellow writer polish her pitch. Well, tried to help. She was writing a YA book about …. well, I’m not sure, because her elevator pitch contained said something like “My book blends genres, but it conforms to the strengths of teen fiction. It features a unique spiral story structure where two timelines showing overlapping narrators warp together…”

No book blends so many genres that they cannot be named. 

During pitch sessions, literary agents are doing active listening to determine what your book is about, if it’s in their wheelhouse, and if it meets their needs. Don’t make this harder by not giving them the information they need to decide if they want pages. Just pitch them on your book’s plot and throw in comps and genres that add context, not obfuscate it.

5. Ramble

Face-to-face time with a literary agent is a chance to receive valuable feedback about your work. However, if you ramble on until the timer ends, you’ll never get to the valuable feedback that will help you pitch literary agents, get manuscript requests, and ultimately get an agent.

Deliver your pitch with confidence, then allow the agent to respond. They might ask questions or offer suggestions.

Whatever they give you tells you something you can use in your next pitch.If they’re not understanding your hook, you might need better comp titles or a stronger elevator pitch.

6. Be attached to a specific outcome, i.e. representation

Spoiler alert: No agent is going to hear your pitch, then offer you representation on the spot. Disappointing, right? Actually I find it freeing.

When you go into a pitch appointment with your heart set on one particular outcome, then it’s an automatic failure if you don’t get that outcome, whether it’s representation or a request for your first three chapters.

If you go into the session open to the outcome and prepared with a strong pitch, then you automatically win! Any advice or praise the agent passes along is bonus.

7. Take it personally

Some agents aren’t going to want to read your book. Some might have real talk about the industry that bursts a bubble for you – say if you’re a nonfiction author with no platform or a SFF author pitching a 150,000-word debut novel.

It can be soul crushing to hear that no one wants your book. (This I know from sending 100 queries and getting several full requests only to have every agent tell me my book wasn’t marketable).

It can be soul crushing to get one request for a first chapter if your friend received three full manuscript requests.

The difficult work of being a writer is to not take the setbacks personally.

Your book may not have been right for an agent, but that’s your book. It’s not you.

PLEASE, don’t let one agent’s rejection or hard truth affect you personally, and don’t let a bad appointment turn you off of agents. Several writers left the Writer’s Digest Conference I went to over the fall because their pitch sessions didn’t return the results they hoped for. They took the rejection personally, and they close themselves off from learning tips that could improve their chance of getting a traditional publishing deal.

Writing is getting rejected and continuing onward. It is a journey. Be committed to it, be humble, and most of all be willing to learn!

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2 thoughts on “Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make When Pitching Literary Agents”

  1. Valuable information. After much queying, it’s good to step back and reevaluate how you’re doing it.

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