The agent stressed that one of the most important things a writer can do is RESEARCH the person they're querying. Agents are listed out there on websites all over the place (two that immediately spring to mind are agentquery.com and writers.net), and they're not shy about what they want and don't want. Most of them list on their profile what they're looking for, how they accept submissions, and basic guidelines for submitting. A writer who sends out blindly is going to do nothing but irritate the agents they send to and eventually give themselves a bad name. Customize your query to each individual agent before sending it out. DO NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES imaginable, send out one query to a crapload of agents at one time. They WILL notice the mass email and delete it immediately without even opening it (yes, the agent running the panel said this himself).
I think the thing to remember here is that agents are people just like us. They're not machines, they're not some data monster that eats pages and spits out rejections. Treat them with respect and professionalism, and you'll get the same in return. I found this out on a first-hand basis when I had my pitch on Friday. After we sat down and got into our conversation, I forgot I was talking to an agent (well... mostly). We just talked like regular people discussing a book. Which is what, if I'd given myself some perspective, all I could've expected in the first place. Pitches are not some test you have to pass! They're a professional conversation with a person who may or may not be interested in what you have to say.
When you create your pitch, try to remember that terminology such as "this book is Harry Potter meets Twilight!" doesn't really impress anyone in the publishing industry, and is really used more in film terminology and movie pitching. Give the agent 3-4 short, well-written sentences about your book. This is NOT a synopsis - we'll get to that later. This is just enough to get someone interested in hearing more about the concept.
Before I started all this research on the pitch, I didn't know what the difference between a pitch, a query, and a proposal was. What I've learned is this: a pitch is a face-to-face meeting with an agent or publisher where you immediately have an in to try to sell your book. A query is a one-page letter (or email) sent to an agent or publisher in attempt to interest them in a book proposal. And a proposal is a lot of things rolled up into one:
- A short blurb about the book's overall story. Don't go over five sentences. Make it tight and short, with little sentences like punchy jabs. Don't get into huge detail here; you're only trying to get them to read on and see what the actual story is like.
- About the author. Include works you've had published that fit within your genre from major markets. Let the agent know what you've been working on, but don't inundate them with dozens of names of minor markets. They need to know if you've gotten an award for your fiction, not that your cousin Danny has published four of your stories on the printing press in your garage. Tell just a little about the publication credits you've received, but don't go overboard.
- Synopsis. This is, plain and simple, an outline of your story set into paragraph form. Give the high points of the story, remembering the Red Queen's advice to Alice the entire time: "Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, STOP." The synopsis must have a clear, recognizable arc, and make sense from start to finish. This is like a map you draw after you finish the book, including all the turning points in the story. DO NOT leave out the end. The agent will want to know you're capable of wrapping up a story with a satisfying ending. Leaving them with a cliffhanger will do nothing but turn them off.
- Partial. This is the first fifty pages, first four chapters, or first 10,000 words of your novel. DO NOT send more than this. An agent can tell immediately if what you've sent is too long. If you're right in the middle of a scene, take it to a logical stopping point and cut it off. The important thing to remember about those first fifty pages is that you MUST have introduced your main characters by the time your reader/agent gets to the end of them. If you haven't, you're probably not going to have a very successful novel on your hands. Be extra-careful of typos and grammar snafus in these pages. Make sure it's as polished as it can possibly be.
- Marketing info. This is potentially dangerous territory, so tread softly where you go. Don't make a lot of outrageous claims about how many copies your book is going to sell. That's for the bean counters in the publishing agencies to tally up. Do, however, include a list of other books similar to yours in the same market segment; books which have done reasonably well in the marketplace, or books the agent or his firm have published.
Networking is essential. You have to have a good rapport with agents and publishers to get ANYWHERE nowadays. Remember, there are over 300,000 books published a year in America alone. You stand a much better chance of getting yours published if you have some contacts in the business. How can you network? You can go to a convention like I did... or if there's not one in your area or it's out of your price range, try finding agents on social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook, or checking out some of the message boards on the publishing websites you're interested in. Listen to conversations, and insert yourself into threads as you see fit. Before you know it, people will know who you are.
One more tip from our panel agent: if you're at a loss on finding agents or editors, check the acknowledgement sections of the books you're emulating. Most authors will list their agents and editors in the acknowledgement page, and this is a great jumping off point for you to do more research on a person that may be able to help you on your way to getting published!