Pitch ‘em Right: How to give conference faculty agents and editors just what they’re looking for!

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by Caroline Leech

Let me guess why you’re reading this post . . . you’ve been working hard for weeks, months, or even years on a manuscript of a book. It’s an amazing story that you’re very proud of, and you’ve decided to sign up for a manuscript critique with an agent or editor at the All Y’All SCBWI Texas Conference, so you can show it off. Well done! Great start!

Except … now the conference is open for registration, which faculty member do you pick to submit to? And what do you even submit? What do you put into your query letter, and how do you format the manuscript? What do you say to them during the critique session? And what do you do when they hand you back a pile of paper covered in red-pen corrections instead of a book deal contract?

We all have so many questions before our first (or second, or even fifth) critique opportunity at conferences, so please, take a breath and let me answer some of them for you. For me, as HarperCollins YA author, a promotion/presentation coach, and a long-time member of SCBWI, there are just SIX things to you need to do – Believe in Y’all, Pick ‘em, Hook ‘em, Dazzle ‘em, Learn from ‘em, and Follow ‘em – to pitch your fabulous book to the right people and in the right way: 

Believe in y’all

Before you even look at the faculty list, you must understand that you are now a professional writer. Even if you haven’t made any money from your writing (yet), or had anything published (yet), you must be ready to show every agent and editor at that conference that you are a professional writer worth the investment of their time and their company’s money. Publishing is, after all, a business, and publishers buy books because selling those books will make them money, not just because they like the story, or think it’ll look pretty on a shelf. 

Therefore, submitting a professional-looking manuscript and a professional-looking query letter, and acting in a professional manner when you are in your critique session, will all reassure the agent or editor who likes the story you’ve written that you might well be a good investment for them. You can still be YOU – quirky, funny, thoughtful, or profound – but show them you’re professional too. 

Even if you have to write it on the front of your notebook, put a Post-It note on the wall above your desk, or make “I-AM-APROFESSIONAL-WRITER” the login password for laptop, do something as a reminder that presenting yourself and your work in a professional manner might just make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.

Pick ‘em – As you look through the conference faculty roster to see who you to sign up with for your critique, make sure you look them up on their website or social media too. No farmer would try to sell a side of beef to a vegetarian restaurant chef, so make sure that you are not trying to submit a picture book manuscript to an editor who only edits novels, or a YA fantasy trilogy to an agent who only reps illustrators. Use all the resources the internet holds for you – check their agency/company website, their #MSWL (manuscript wish list, ie what projects they are looking for and are excited by), their posts on X/Twitter, Threads and other platforms. Look them up on Query Tracker (or perhaps Submittable) to see if they represent other authors who write books like yours, or who feel your writing connects with. 

Once you’ve picked your perfect critiquer, personalize your pitch to them. Tell them in the opening paragraph of your query letter that you’ve noticed that they are looking for a quirky space opera picture book or novel in the voice of a real life dragon living under New York City. Or that they think there’s a gap in the market for books aimed at teen chefs, or the junior Olympic competitors. Or tell them how much you love the books of one of their current authors. Whatever makes you think that this particular agent/editor would suit you or your project, use that connection to personalize your letter to them. It proves you have done your research, you’re not wasting their time with something they don’t even rep/buy, and that you respect them enough to put time into writing that letter just for them, instead of just sending a blanket “To Whom it May Concern”.

Hook ‘em – we’re in Texas after all! Does your one-paragraph story pitch in your cover letter intrigue them and make them want to find out more? Does the opening paragraph of your manuscript punch grab them and keep them reading? You are always asked to submit the opening pages of your book, (not what you think is the “the best bit” in chapter 12), because if your opening pages don’t compel a reader (or an agent/editor) to keep reading, then it won’t matter how great Chapter 12 is. They won’t read that far. 

Hooking ‘em starts with a title that intrigues them to read the first line on the first page, and that then has to make them read the second line, and then the next, and the next, and then keep going to the next paragraph, and the next. And when they reach the last line on any page, that must make them want to turn it and read on. So if you have any doubts about whether your opening pages are “the best bit” of your book, you might need to do more work on them. Ask within your SCBWI community for readers, people who know about writing your sort of book and who will give you kind and clear feedback. Step back and try to read those pages as if you’d never seen them before. Do they still intrigue you enough to keep reading? I sure hope so!

Dazzle ‘em – Don’t worry, you’re not looking for “perfect”. After all, you’ll never know what the “perfect book” might be for that agent/editor at this particular moment in Spring 2024 as they are planning their author/book projects to hit shelves in Fall 2025/Winter 2026. But you can make sure you don’t send them “imperfect”. Whatever you submit, please make sure that is polished to a dazzling shine. Proofread the letter and the manuscript pages more than once, and ask someone else to cast their fresh eyes over it too. More than a couple of typos or spelling mistakes, or improper formatting (such as weird fonts or bright pink/purple/green ink) could stop an agent/editor reading your submission documents before they’ve even started. And there’s always a chance they won’t start reading again. What a waste of your time, your opportunity, and your critique fee that would be! So show them you’re a professional writer (remember #1?) by asking in your SCBWI community/critique group for a volunteer to proofread your documents – you can always offer to pay them back by proofreading theirs in return.

Learn from ‘em – Of course, every one of us hopes that our faculty critiquer will be so blown away by our story that they’ll offer us representation or a pre-emptive six-book deal on the spot, right there in the critique hallway of the conference. But while we all “know someone” or have “heard about someone” to whom that has happened, in reality, we need to look on these critique sessions as a great way to learn how to improve your work from the people who really know, and also as a way to connect with a publishing professional. 

Even if they hand you back your pages completely smothered in red pen, and all you can hear is them tearing your writing apart bit by bit, try to remember that they aren’t being cruel or vindictive. They are trying to help. They are sharing their expertise with you and saving you the time and pain of excitedly submitting something via the usual submission process only to get a form rejection email six months later. That is (trust me!) far harder to deal with than some constructive but kindly criticism face to face over a critique table.

So make sure you listen hard, and don’t feel shy about asking for clarification if you don’t understand what they mean. It’s okay if you don’t understand publishing/writing jargon, or their comment is too woolly to be of practical revision help. I know ‘learning’ can be hard to do when you were so hopeful about ‘winning’, and it can be hard to hear any of the ten positive comments after they’ve given you one negative one. That’s why I’ve always recorded my critique sessions (with permission) on my phone’s Voice Memo app so that I can listen back to it. I promise that every single time, when I’ve listened again later, I’ve heard so much positive feedback that I missed in the moment, as I wallowed in my disappointment at them not handing me a six-figure check and Hollywood film deal (yes, I tend to get overexcited about these events!).

Follow ‘em – You’d be surprised how few people ever a) follow up an invitation to re-submit a revised manuscript after a conference, and b) ever bother to say thank you to someone who has given a critique/workshop/keynote speech. I was brought up to always send a handwritten thank-you note to anyone who had hosted me, done me a favor or organized an event I took part in. Even though most of my thank-you notes are now sent by email, I know it makes a difference to whether someone remembers and thinks well of you. Don’t you like getting thank-you cards/messages too? I do. And if someone takes just a few minutes to acknowledge my contribution to their enjoyment or learning by saying thank you, their name stays with me for a very long time. And after a conference, if an agent or editor, or another more experienced author, has offered me the chance to resubmit my revisions, or even just an email address that I can send a note of gratitude to, I’m certainly not going to turn my back on that offer! So . . .

  • If you have something to submit/resubmit to your critiquer, DO IT! And look in your conference pack for the full list of the faculty members’ submission invitations and submit to them too. Even if they didn’t meet/critique you, they WANT to read your work because that’s how they find new authors and new books to take to the bookstores (and make their company money!). 
  • If you don’t have something to submit, or you think your revisions might take more than a couple of days to send back, then you must send them an immediate thank-you note. And, much as I love pretty cards, I’d suggest you send this one by email (Subject: SCBWI Texas Conference – THANK YOU !), because chances are they’ll be so charmed, they’ll reply to acknowledge it, and that not only puts you into their memory, and into their contact list, it might just open up an ongoing conversation (sneaky, eh?).

SCBWI conferences are a fantastic place to meet old and new friends and develop your writing community, and to learn from representatives of the publishing industry and from other authors and illustrators. I know that your first time can feel intimidating (mine was, back in 2011!), but you’ll be in a room with people who share your passion for telling stories, all of them professional writers or illustrators JUST LIKE YOU. 

So go on, y’all, have a great conference, meet lots of friends, and learn a ton from your critique and the speakers, so you can go home after knowing that you’ve pitched ‘em right.

Caroline Leech is a Scottish Texan author, podcaster and coach. Her YA novels, WAIT FOR ME and IN ANOTHER TIME are published by HarperCollins, and she also coaches authors and illustrators to present themselves and their books in public with confidence and professionalism. You can find her at www.carolineleechwrites.com and on her podcast at www.authorsandaudiences.com.