Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of online pitch contests. But for those who aren’t, in recent years, events have sprung up around the internet with the goal of helping writers connect with agents and editors who may be interested in their work. Kat Cho and Christine Herman, two of our Writer’s Block Party contributors, have both participated successfully in several online contests. (That’s us! It’s weird to write about yourselves in the third person, but we’re doing it).
Kat signed with Beth Phelan of the Bent Agency after last year’s inaugural #DVPit in April 2016 and will be a Pitch Wars mentor in 2017, while Christine was a Pitch Wars 2016 mentee who signed with Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency after they initially connected through a #PitMad tweet. Since a spring and summer full of pitch contests is just around the corner, we’ve teamed up to discuss the pros and cons to pitching and querying in the public arena.
You gain a wonderful community
It’s really nice to get support for your work in a field that’s, for the most part, very solitary. There’s something to be said for commiserating with people who know what you’re going through. It’s so hard sometimes to explain to people outside of the industry just what querying and subbing is. So, it’s nice to have a community of writers who understand the importance of things like pitching and who come together to support each other. This is something that I think occurs without fail in any online pitch event I’ve watched or participated in.
One of the best parts about pitch contests is that they’re a fantastic place to find other writers in the same stage as you! Just a quick scroll through a relevant hashtag can lead to new Twitter friends and potential critique partners. Although the actual act of writing is something that’s mostly done alone, writers can learn a lot from each other — and finding friends to weather publishing’s ups and downs with is a total must for surviving this fickle, ever-changing industry.
You get exposure for your work with lower one-on-one commitment
Whether it’s your first page and a short pitch, or a simple tweet, putting your work out in the world can be scary. But it can also be incredibly rewarding. Seeing a positive response to my contest participation through Pitch Wars and on the #pitmad hashtag was so exciting, because for a long time, the only people who knew details about my manuscript were myself and my critique partners. Seeing people talking about my concept and snippets of my writing motivated me to work even harder on my book, and made me realize that all my hard work was truly paying off. I write for myself first — but I also write so that others will enjoy it. Entering a pitch contest has helped me build hype for a book that isn’t even out in the world yet (although maybe someday it will be!).
I’ll also say it’s nice to put your work out there “in general” and see what kind of bites you can get. When we query directly to an agent their silence is almost definitely a rejection. When we post a tweet in a pitch contest it’s very likely the tweet just wasn’t seen so we can still slush query later. This gives a bit of a safety net cushion to the idea that we’re just getting our feet wet.
You receive immediate response to your work
For many the worst part of querying is the waiting! You send your book baby out there all swaddled in the warmest query letter you could quilt together and you wait for people to tell you that it’s the cutest baby they’ve ever seen! But then there is that period of silence and you start to second guess that you sent it out too early, that it still needed time to get potty trained and learn its ABCs (Okay, this analogy is getting weird, so I’m going to stop now). Anyway, in an online pitch contest, the waiting is waived! You get immediate responses as either comments on a blog hosting the event or likes on your twitter pitch. You get requests by a certain deadline set by the contest and you are over the moon to see those partials and fulls pouring in! You did it, you are a Twitter heart queen! Whee!
As mentioned above, when you’re writing, it’s just you and your laptop/notebook/preferred beverage/potential animal companion. And while sometimes this can be lonely…at least the only person’s opinion you have to worry about is your own.
Although I’ll forever be grateful for everything that pitch contests gave me, I also cannot deny that the stress took a toll on my nerves. When I participated in Pitch Wars, I spent two months pouring my heart into my manuscript and perfecting my agent round entry — while also being terrified of getting zero requests. Those same anxieties came roaring back when I prepared to post my #PitMad tweet. And the stress didn’t end when I got requests, because there was now public proof that someone had shown interest in my manuscript, which meant that I felt weirdly obligated to tell the public whether I succeeded or failed. Which leads us into…
The public attention for a very subjective, personal journey
The pressure you can feel from any bit of perceived success in the public contest can sometimes weigh on your subsequent querying journey. The issue is that when you pitch a project and are met with enthusiasm (no matter if it is on Twitter, in a contest, or at a conference) that doesn’t directly translate into an offer of representation. So, when days, weeks, or (God forbid) months go by without that lucrative announcement of representation people might feel like they can ask you, “What’s up? Anything to share?” Those moments can feel like a real downer because you feel like you’ve failed in that moment. However, the average query journey is more than 6 months. So, in the grand scheme of things, you’re probably doing fine. It’s the public pressure of querying in a “public” event that creates this feeling of failure.
But the thing is, you don’t owe other people anything. This is your journey and all querying stories are different. We do hear about those amazing stories where someone queried on Monday, a full request on Wednesday, and an offer on Friday. But, we all know, that’s not normal. It’s fine for people to be excited for your perceived pre-success. However, once their expectations start weighing on your shoulders, it’s okay to take a step back, give a polite, “Thanks for the support, but no news yet!” and just let it go like Elsa.
There’s also the added pressure once other people in your same cohort start to get offers before you. That’s hard to ignore because you feel like you began at the same starting point.
I’m here to tell you that’s completely wrong. Yes, your journey in this particular event started at the same time, but you don’t know how long they’ve been working on that manuscript. Maybe it’s been one that they’ve picked up on and off for the last ten years. Maybe they queried a version of it two years ago and got a million rejections and revamped it for this event. Everyone’s writing journey is different and even if you got your requests from the same contest, there’s a very real possibility that other people went into it more or less prepared than you. The comparing game helps no one. The whole “keep your eyes on your own paper” is never more important than when you’re in a public pitch event!
Public journeys and expectations often come with Insecurity
Okay, real talk, a pitch is not your book. A query isn’t, a synopsis isn’t. Nothing is your book but the book itself. So, it’s very possible that if you get a lot of attention in a pitch or online contest there will come a time where you think, “Oh no, what if my book is nothing like they’re expecting?” It happened to me for sure. I got my agent out of a Twitter pitch contest and shortening your book into 140 characters really does extract any small nuances that you can achieve with longer pitches. So, I had a very real moment of thinking, “I obviously did this wrong! There’s no way this many people would be interested in the actual book!”
My only piece of advice for that is to let it go and follow through with your path. Don’t let these feelings stop you from putting your book out there and querying. If someone says they’re interested, take that at face value and send them the book (if they seem like the agent/editor for you). If someone is disappointed with your book then (to be honest) they probably were always going to be disappointed by it even if it didn’t have a fantastic pitch.
And, you should have some faith in the fact that when someone says they’re interested in the concept of your book, they’re not just blowing hot air. This industry is a business, it’s in the best interest of agents and editors to only request material they think they’ll like.
On the flip side since a pitch is not your book, even though it can be hard not to get much attention in a pitch contest, it’s important to remember that most people still get their agents from old-fashioned querying. Both of us may have initially connected with our agents because of Twitter pitch contests, but they still read our queries and our full manuscripts before we signed with them.
There are people who got zero or very few requests during the Pitch Wars agent round, or almost no attention during #PitMad, who have now signed with agents. So don’t let the insecurities inherent in putting yourself out there dissuade you from submitting your manuscript to agents.
Keep querying. Remember that not everything can be pitched in 140 characters, or its first two hundred words. Don’t give up!
Advice on how to always “win” a public pitch contest
The overall point of a public online pitch event is to get requests and eventually get an agent/editor, right? Wrong! My advice is to not look at it as a one-goal-fits-all type of event. The idea of putting your work out there is to share it and to get feedback. And agents aren’t the only ones who can do that. There is a whole other group worth focusing on and that’s fellow writers! Like we said above, community is a big part of these events. If you can walk away from an online event with one extra contact or beta reader or critique partner, then your life is more enriched than it was before, right? That means you won.
The more advice you can get on strengthening your work, the more chance you’ll have of receiving that coveted offer of representation. So, take advantage of these events to grow your writer world and to gain more insight that could be a factor into helping you get that agent and publishing deal one day.
In conclusion, while pitch contests are an awesome resource, they aren’t everything. Don’t be afraid to consider your own limits and decide what is and isn’t right for you. Don’t let the pressure and the stress get you down. And make sure to support your fellow writers — after all, you’re all in this together.