pitching a literary agent at the 2017 atanta writing workshop

Before I went in, I closed my eyes and whispered a short prayer:

“Please guide me, Higher Self. Be with me, guardian angels, ascended masters, and spiritual helpers. Let all the right words come to me, so that every word I speak is the exact thing she wants to hear. Thank you, Xanax. Amen.”

And then I waited. It was almost my turn to pitch literary agent Janell Walden Agyeman at the 2017 Atlanta Writing Workshop. The workshop was from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM on a bright, sunny Saturday, the last weekend in February.

In all there were five one-hour blocks of sessions for us to attend, and there were three sessions happening at once all the time, so it was up to the attendee to choose which workshop/session was the most relevant to her. We were free to move in and out of sessions, and many attendees disappeared from sessions to attend their respective 10-minute pitch sessions with their chosen literary agent(s).

I sat next to one fantasy writer who excused himself from the session, on his way to pitch an agent. It was his first of four pitches for the day. How exhausting, I thought. Expensive, too. I’d only selected one agent to pitch to. One agent was enough, as far as I was concerned. But I’m an independently published author, and I wasn’t really sure that I had much need for an agent, anyway. I was doing it for the experience and out of curiosity. Would she like my book? Maybe we could still do something together. I had no idea.

All day long, writers mostly talked about how nervous they were about their pitching sessions. I wondered why. What did they think the agent was going to do to them? I mean, really. What’s the worst thing that could happen. The agent was not going to stand up, flip the table over, and scream at you to leave the room immediately because your book idea was terrible and you would never amount to anything as a writer. No, the worst thing they could do was to tell you they weren’t interested in your book. And so, what?

But goddammit if that nervous energy wasn’t contagious. The anticipation of every writer attending a pitch session hung heavily in the air, along with her worries, doubts, fears, and expectations.
Writers hovered and buzzed around the entrance to both of the rooms where the pitches took place all day like nervous busy worker bees, each awaiting their ten minutes to sell an agent on their idea for a book or completed manuscript.

My pitch was toward the end of the day, at 4:10 PM. I thought that was a good time to go, even though I wondered if she would be tired from hearing about fifty pitches before she heard mine. If they were mostly bad pitches, she might be really intrigued by mine, because I just knew my pitch was that good. I’d done my research on how to pitch an agent at a writing conference, and had scribbled down notes to the most relevant questions the literary agent would have:

What makes my book stand out from every other book that’s on the market?

Who are the characters?

What’s the conflict?

What are the major themes?

What other writers/books would I compare myself to as far as style?

If it’s nonfiction, why am I the exact person who should write this book?

Why is it a topic that you should read about now (why is it timely/relevant right now)?

Why is it a book, instead of a magazine article?

The last thing on this list I’d copied from an article I’d read online (which I’ll link for credit, if I can find it) was, “The agent needs to walk away remembering your book.”

Below this list, I had another, shorter list:

Nonfiction pitch:

What is the book about?

Why is it important?

Who’s going to buy it?

What authority do I have to tell this story?

Oh, God. It was 3:45 now and I was about to leave the session I was sitting in to go to the hive of activity and do my own busy hovering, waiting for my turn. Nervousness bubbled up inside of me and I could feel the anxiety level rising. I took a half of a Xanax (.5 mg) and let it dissolve beneath my tongue. I’d wait ten minutes and see if that was enough to quell my rising feeling of panic and discontent. It wasn’t. Another half a Xanax, and I noticed an empty conference room near the busy entrance of anxious, buzzing writers – the perfect little respite from the nervous throng.

I went in, sat down and looked out the windows, quietly observing my surroundings. Enveloped in the empty conference room, I was glad the lights were off and occasionally looked through the glass doors at all the writers standing and waiting at the entrance of the hive.

I took deep breaths and tried to ground and center myself. I like interviews. This was not even my nervous energy. It was just the energy was palpable and I couldn’t manage to cut myself off from it.

It was almost show time. Lights, camera, action! Turn on the charm and gush enthusiasm. Sell it, sell it, sell it! I can do this. Easily.

That’s when I closed my eyes and whispered a short prayer:

“Please guide me, Higher Self. Be with me, guardian angels, ascended masters, and spiritual helpers. Let all the right words come to me, so that every word I speak is the exact thing she wants to hear. Thank you, Xanax. Amen.”

In moments I knew I’d have to sit down and introduce myself, then lead with a strong and succinct summary of my book.

There was an auburn-haired young lady who escorted each of us into the room and made the initial introduction for us, so that part was easy. She had dark-rimmed glasses and reminded me of Lisa Loeb.

She brought me into the room and gestured towards the table where Ms. Agyeman was finishing up her last session. The room was noisy and boisterous. There were at least a dozen agents in there, all conducting pitch sessions at the same time. It was kind of like trying to have a conversation in a noisy nightclub—sometimes I had to lean forward and practically yell to be heard by the woman sitting directly across from me at the table.
Anyway, I was thankful for the introduction, which served as a good way to break the ice. Ms. Agyeman looked different from the photograph on her web page. She was pale yellow color instead of the golden brown in the photo, a little older, and seemed much smaller, even frail. Petite. When I shook her hand, I noticed how small and frail it seemed, too. But that was kind of good, since I didn’t feel as intimidated by her in person as I was by her picture. She certainly had an air of authority, but she was approachable. She was bougie, like my mother’s sorority sisters. So am I. I easily slid into that aspect of my personality and we clicked instantly.
I sat down and led with the sentence I had prepared in advance:

“I’ve written a book titled Silicon Valley Girl: My Adolescent Life and Times, and an Ode to Generation X. This book would be classified as contemporary memoir, though it’s actually my transcribed diaries from age twelve to nineteen. It’s a coming-of-age story in diary format—unscripted, uncensored, and unabridged.”

She looked interested, and seemed to be waiting for me to continue, so I did.

“Who are my readers? Generation X. Young adult memoir. Women. People interested in different, distinct voices of the Afro American experience. I read on your web page that you’re looking for writing that is free from stereotypes and has multicultural appeal. Silicon Valley Girl fits that description.”

And we talked freely and easily from there, even if I had to lean over and yell in her face sometimes because of all the noise.

She asked me how serious I was about being a writer. Was this something I saw myself doing as a career, or was I just doing this as a hobby?

Oh, boy. Definitely a career. I hustle in the corporate world, but more and more I don’t fit in, and they seem to be able to sense it. I simply don’t belong there. I’m a writer and artist, and I don’t fit their corporate mold.

I told her about my parents having fled the South during the civil rights era, and starting a new life in California. About what made my book compelling. How my book tells a much bigger story about American culture and society. How I connected to my parents’ southern roots by spending summers with my grandparents and relatives in Alabama. Being middle class. How my life was like The Cosby Show, if The Cosby Show had been on Showtime. Or HBO.

She smiled and coughed a little. I could tell she was battling a cold. She’d asked the Lisa Loeb lady for some hot water. I felt bad she was here instead of at home, recuperating.
Then she inquired, “Jack & Jill?”

She studied me briefly for my reaction.

“Yes! Jack & Jill! That’s so funny you would ask me that! I talk all about Jack & Jill and teen conferences!”

At this, she said, “That’s…” and she didn’t even finish the sentence. She just put her hand over her heart, and I knew in that instant that we were meant to have this meeting.

And then I read her the synopsis from the back of my book. She really liked it. She said it was written very well. That’s kind of when everything shifted, because I said, “Oh, I didn’t write it.” And so she said, “Well, who did?” And I said, “The publishing services company I’m using to publish my book.” Suddenly, her small, frail shoulder sank. “You’re self-publishing? Well then what do you need me for? Oh, I can’t touch it.”

But then we went on talking, anyway, because I wanted to understand why she couldn’t touch my book because I was an indie author. So she went on to explain how once my book had been assigned an ISBN number, there was nothing she could do with it, until and unless I’d sold 10,000 copies. And that’s when she brightened, and she told me she believed I could do it.
And we went over the ten minutes, but only slightly, and I really appreciated her time and feedback, which was invaluable: she’d said, “I’m salivating, I want to read this book so badly.”  So I told her I’d send her a copy. And you know what else? Having your book read by someone with all the connections that she has? Pshhhh. You can’t beat that with a bat. She personally requested an advance copy of my book, and that’s fucking golden. Do you know how many query letters she receives (none right now, because her submissions are closed)? Do you know how many authors pitch her in any given month? Over the course of a year?

And here, she liked what I had to say. We had a connection. And I blurted out, “Well, maybe when I get a movie deal…” and she cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow with interest.

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