Guest Blogger: Jenny Bent: Please Don’t Take Me Personally

Please Don’t Take Me Personally, and other tips for pitching agents and editors at conferences.I’ve blogged before about getting the most from conferences( and one of the most important things I wrote about is relying less on pitching and more on making personal connections.

Meeting an agent at a meal and chatting with her about your mutual love of dogs makes you stand out much more than pitching her a book from opposite sides of the salad bar. Later on, when you query her, and reference the conversation, she’ll bring a positive memory to her reading of your work. In other words, the non-pitch ismore powerful than the pitch.

Most of the clients I’ve picked up at conferences I did not meet in a pitch session, but on a panel, or in a social setting, or because they had volunteered in some capacity and met me that way.Having said that, pitching your book can be valuable too. Even if it doesn’t result in an immediate book deal (it’s good to keep your expectations realistic), preparing to pitch is a great way to focus and think about how to pitch your book, and then get feedback from an agent or editor about not only the project, but the quality of your pitch. The pitch you create for a conference can then be used to create a really strong pitch letter.So when you’re sitting down and planning your pitch, don’t make the rookie mistake of writing the entire plot in teeny tiny letters on an index card and planning to sit down and read it to me for the entire five minutes of your session. I’ve had this happen countless times, and I understand it,because the assumption is that I want to know the complete plot of the book.But I don’t, really. I want to know how you can sum it up in a few sentences. Two very, very different things.

When you sit down across from me, I’m going to ask you a few questions about yourself as a writer, andthen ask you to sum up your book in a few sentences. The last thing I wantto hear is a straight five minutes of you reading to me a detailed synopsis of every plot point. I’m not saying you can’t bring notes–just don’t sit down and read to me for the entire pitch. Also, sometimes I’m going to cut you off and explain to you how your pitch could be improved. Please take that in the spirit in which it’s intended. Agents, after all, are all about the pitch–that’s a hugely important part of our jobs–so it’s not surprising that I may have a few thoughts on the subject.Which brings me to my next point.

Writing is an intensely personal processand so it is perfectly understandable that if I’m not in love with your material it feels like I am ripping out your soul. But here is what is so important to remember: 99 times out of 100, I turn down material not because I think it is bad, but because it just isn’t a good fit for me. To illustrate: on a number of occasions I have turned down material even though there is already a deal attached. To me, this makes perfect sense, but I am told that this behaviour is baffling to some writers. Yet, truly, in some cases it would be entirely unethical of me to take on your project simplybecause you already have money coming to you.Think about it this way: when I read your work, not only do I need to love it as a reader, I need to understand it as a marketer. I need the love so I can stand by you through thick and thin, so I can still feel passionate about your work if you hit a career downswing as so many writers do. Even if you have a book deal now, pretty soon that contract will be done, andI’ll need to negotiate a new deal. What if the books didn’t work and it’s areal challenge to find you your next gig? I need the love to do this in a convincing way. If I don’t believe it, neither will the editors I call.That’s the love part.

The marketing part is this. When I’m reading a novel that I love and I start mentally making my submission list because I knowt he exact editors that will love it, that’s when I know I should sign the author. Sometimes I’ll read material that’s really strong, but I can’tfigure out who I would send it to, or even how I would position it in the marketplace. If I’m going to agent something well, I need to know what the competition is, what titles I can compare it to, which editors are lookingfor this kind of work, and which already have something that is too similar.There are just too many genres and editors out there for me to know how to do this for every single manuscript I read.Point being, even if it feels personal, it’s truly not. And most of the time I’m going to ask to see your material regardless because a good pitch never guarantees good material and vice versa. Plenty of amazing writers are not good pitchers.

Finally, I completely understand if you’re nervous. I would be nervous too.But I swear I am the most harmless person on the planet (unless I represent you in which case I am a bulldog). But mostly I am harmless if sometimes abit brusque, and you have nothing to fear when pitching me.

Now, Holly Henderson Root is a monster and you should definitely fear her, but I am a completely different story. (Kidding! I kid. Holly and I are good friends.)So please don’t worry. I’m perfectly happy to spend the entire pitchtalking about shoes and I’ll ask you to send your material anyway, so reallythere is no pressure.

And that, I guess, is the moral of this post. EVEN IF WE SPEND THE ENTIRE SESSION TALKING ABOUT YOUR SHOES I WILL STILL ASK TO SEE YOUR WORK. Which is to say that you have nothing to worry about. I will never hold a flubbed pitch against you; I will always read your work with an open mind (unless you insult my dog or something); and unless you throw up on my shoes or something I’m sure I won’t even notice or remember any mistakes or missteps that you make.So figure out how to sum up your work in a few great sentences, come up with a fabulous title (agents and editors love fabulous titles) and then don’t sweat it. Even if you can’t sum it up well or can’t find a good title, I’ll help you in the pitch because I think that kind of thing is fun. Again,it’s kind of in my job description. I’ll see you soon.

In a career spanning 15 years, Jenny Bent has made a practice of making bestsellers — either by spotting new talent or developing careers for multi-published authors. Her list is varied and includes commercial fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction and memoir.

All the books she represents speak to the heart in some way: they are linked by genuine emotion, inspiration and great writing and story-telling. This includes books like NYT bestselling author John Kasich’s upcoming Every Other Monday, about his twenty years in a bible study group; the upcoming Whom Not to Marry by Pat Connor, an 80-year-old Catholic priest featured in a recent Maureen O’Dowd column; the #1 New York Times best seller The Red Hat Society; the NYT bestseller Lost and Found, a book about loss and grief and how our pets can help us to heal; and humor writing including the New York Times bestseller Idiot Girls Action Adventure Club by Laurie Notaro and the many New York Times bestsellers by Jill Conner Browne of Sweet Potato Queen fame. She has made a specialty of representing Southern voices of all types.

In the realm of commercial fiction she represents many New York Times bestselling novelists including Lynsay Sands, Julia London, Sandra Hill and USA Today bestsellers Kathy Caskie and Janelle Denison.

She was born in New York City, but grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in a house full of books where she spent many lazy afternoons reading in a sunny window seat. She went on to England to get a BA/MA with first class honors from Cambridge University. After graduation she worked in magazines, bookselling and agenting, most recently at Trident Media Group. She now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment full of books and while there are not quite so many lazy reading afternoons, she manages to fit one in now and then.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Guest Blogger: Jenny Bent: Please Don’t Take Me Personally

  1. Jenny, thanks for a reassuring post. And the warning about Holly. I'm signed up to pitch other agents at this year's conference, but I hope to have a chance to say hi and perhaps chat about shoes.

    Lisa Katzenberger

  2. Scott Eagan says:

    You are so on the money with this Jenny! Please writers, listen to her on this. She couldn't have said it better.

    See you in SC!


  3. Erika Robuck says:

    Thank you for your advice, Jenny. Much appreciated!

    Erika Robuck

  4. waxmanagency says:

    Oh yes, I am a true terror. 🙂 Well said, Jenny! Looking forward to SC as well.
    -Holly Root

Comments are closed.