Today’s burning question comes from Gary Smothers, who wants to know who’s making money off of pitch sessions and whether they’re worth it for writers.

The question:

Good morning! I’m excited for your trip to BEA. My question is a bit cynical, hence my Twitter name, @jadedhack.

Agent pitch sessions: I have only attended two conferences so I’m in no way an expert. The pitch sessions are the main draw. The one consistent sentiment I’ve heard from other attendees is they paid money for the pitch session.

I’m a realist. Working in a prison for 13 years taught me the unwanted lesson of doubt in most everything when it comes to people. So, is there any real use to a pitch session?

I realize one may get lucky. But are the sessions, as they are a big draw, only there to put people at the conference?

If an agent gets lucky, so be it. I guess what I’m asking is what is the rate of requests for a manuscript? I’d wager it’s pretty high–even if they know that there’s no way this idea works, this person is a wackadoodle, I publish romance but this is horror.

Again, I’m pretty cynical.

I will continue to go and pitch because it did serve me well, it’s motivational, and it’s fun. But I am curious. The attendees are an audience easily held in rapt attention.

I know that writing is a business and where there’s business, there’s opportunism. Just my thoughts.

Thanks,

Gary

These are great questions, Gary. I think you’re wise to question the system, but you might be able to ratchet back from cynic to mere skepticism on this one.

First things first: agents don’t get paid to take pitches. They work on straight commission (15%, typically) and don’t make a dime until they sell your book to a publisher. They might get a small fee for teaching a workshop at a conference, and they might have their travel expenses reimbursed by the conference or their agency. Depends on the agent and the conference.

Conferences do make money on the fees conference-goers pay to attend the pitch session, but it’s not much. There aren’t a lot of conference organizers that are just rolling in dough and laughing maniacally at all the unsuspecting writers they’ve managed to fleece. They’re hoping to cover their costs and maybe have something left over for preparing the next writer-centric event.

It’s quite likely agents have a higher rate of requests for partial and full manuscripts when they’re meeting writers in person. This is only natural; they’re not monsters, and they don’t like crushing people’s dreams any more than the rest of us do. When you take into consideration the fact that writers and readers are their tribe, just as writers and readers are your tribe, it makes even more sense that they’re perhaps a bit more encouraging and forthcoming when you’re sitting in front of them.

There are several reasons it’s worth it for agents to attend conferences.

  • It raises the profile of their agency. Agencies generally don’t advertise and it’s considered suspect for them to contact writers directly, so conferences provide their primary connection with the public.
  • It lets them connect with writers through workshops and panels and teach them how to improve their chances at publication.
  • It lets them see whether you’re crazy or not. You might have a brilliant book, but if you’re a giant pain in the ass or totally off your rocker, they’re not going to want to do business with you.
  • It lets them see if you’re good company and someone they want to develop. You might have a promising, intriguing story that sounds like it needs improvement . . . and if you click with someone, they might just want to help you get it on the level.
  • Back to the first bullet point: It gets their names out there and attracts the attention of writers who have great books to pitch. They need you to send them great books they can pitch to acquisitions editors — without a mountain of submissions to mine for gold, their chances of paying rent are pretty slim. It’s no wonder there’s so much turnover in the industry when you look at it that way.

A higher rate of requests doesn’t necessarily translate to a higher rate of offers of representation, though.

Resources for writers seeking agents

Query Tracker

You can check out specific agents’ stats (queries, requests, rejections, etc.) at Query Tracker before you register for a pitch session; those numbers might help you decide whether to spring for the extra fee.

Writer’s Market books

If you’re querying agents, buy this book immediately and read all the articles in it: Guide to Literary Agents 2018. The $20 you spend on that can save you a lot of sweat and scratch.

What agents think about pitch sessions

As much as all of this kind of sucks for writers, it sucks for agents, too. You don’t have to look hard to find out what agents think of the pitch-session system.

Here’s what Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency thinks

And here’s Janet Reid, who thinks pitch sessions are the spawn of Satan

That last link offers great ideas for what pitch sessions could be used for. That post was published in 2014, and I think the tide has been turning. Some conference organizers (including the good people behind this month’s Missouri Writers Guild’s conference) are inviting writers to meet with editors and other industry pros to prepare their pitches in advance of the pitch session.

How to make pitch sessions pay off

If you’re a member of a writers guild or can somehow bend the ear of the organizers of your local conference, encourage them to create a pitch-prep room or novel-development room staffed by pros who can help aspiring writers find their way.

In my mind, the best writers conferences are the ones that are most effective at educating authors and connecting writers with readers, and that doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg or make people sick with anxiety over botching their one big shot. We’re all learning here, and none of us are getting rich — not even the agents or publishers or freelance editors who seem so expensive until you do the math — so we may as well enjoy the journey and make some new friends along the way. Right?