Virtual Literary Speed Dating – do’s and don’ts from a first-timer

This year I put on my big girl panties and found the nerve to do three virtual literary speed dates, pitching two different manuscripts to three different publishers.

Literary speed dating is an opportunity to bypass the slush piles and get yourself in front of publishers and agents – the very people with the power to turn your manuscript into a book.

In the past, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) have run face-to-face speed date events in the eastern states. One of the few positives to COVID-19 is that many events – literary speed dating included – have gone online, which has opened it up to writers from the West (and middle) who previously would have been unlikely to fly to Melbourne or Sydney for a 3-minute chat.

I won’t pretend it wasn’t utterly terrifying, but at the same time I felt so privileged to be able to talk about my manuscripts to three individuals who love books as much as I do. I’m not going to spend much time here talking about how to write the perfect pitch (the ASA do a great prep course for that) but instead offer some more practical advice for anyone considering a virtual pitch session in the future.

What is involved in virtual literary speed dating:

The literary speed dating event I attended in December 2020 was held over two days, with 13 publishers and 6 agents. Some of the publishers had two separate sessions, one for children and YA and the other for novels/non-fiction.

Bookings opened a month or so prior to the event, with priority given to people 200km or more from Sydney and Melbourne.

You were limited to a maximum of three sessions, each costing $25. You are asked to prepare a 3-minute pitch with the possibility of questions from the publisher/agent afterwards.

Each publisher or agent had a 90-minute window, so assuming 5 minutes per pitch, that’s only 18 possible spots for each person. Even if they allowed only 4 minutes per person, that’s still only 22 spots, so you can see why most of the appointments booked out well in advance of the event.

About ten days prior I was sent an email with my precise appointment time (ie. 10.58am) and a Zoom link.

You are asked to click on the link and enter the waiting room at least five minutes prior to the session. Someone from the ASA introduces you and the publisher and then you just need to launch into it – no time for small talk. Expect the third person to be ‘in the room’, for at least part of the talk.

If you go over the three minutes a small bell will ring. For each of my pitches, the publisher asked questions afterwards, but all up the sessions were no more than five minutes. Then you click the ‘leave meeting’ link, and that’s it.

After your session the publishers/agents have seven days to give their list of ‘matches’ to the ASA, who then have another week before informing the successful pitches.  I imagine the publishers spend that week wisely, researching the authors and Facebook stalking them, so it’s probably a good idea to make sure your socials are up to date and looking the best they possibly can.

If you haven’t matched to anyone (ie if the publisher is not interested in hearing any more about your manuscript) you will be told, it won’t just be tumbleweeds and crickets. But either way, it’s potentially up to two weeks before you know if your pitch was successful of not.

Do’s and Don’ts of Literary Speed Dating

Do your research – Choosing just three publishers from the amazing line-up can be really difficult but you want to make sure you don’t waste anyone’s time. I printed the lists and immediately got to work crossing out any publisher or agent who explicitly stated they were not interested in my genre, and then I began researching the rest. How you decide which publisher is the best fit for your book is a question for another time, but suffice to say it seemed prudent to pitch to a publisher whose list isn’t currently open for submissions and to one of my dream publishers – whose list might be open but I wanted to make that face-to-face connection.

Don’t leave it to the last minute – Most of us aren’t the type of person who can just ad lib a TEDx talk – it takes time and many practice sessions to nail your pitch. I practiced when walking the dog, in the shower, lying on the trampoline, waiting for the kids to get out of school. I got a number of strange looks from other parents who thought I was going loopy talking to myself, but the more I practiced the more familiar it became, and even though I got nervous on the day and mixed the order up, I knew instinctively what I had and hadn’t said, and didn’t forget anything too important.

Do practice online (preferably with a friend who is also pitching) – it’s very different speaking to someone via Zoom than it is in real life. If you don’t have someone to practice with, video yourself on your computer. Listen to the quality of the sound and figure out where your computer’s microphone is so you know where you’re speaking to. Also check what you’re wearing and how it translates onscreen. During a practice session my friend pointed out my top matched the floral pelmet over my window… good advice: don’t match the furniture.

Do check your background – have you got a clear, pleasant background? No chance of someone walking past naked on the way to the shower? Do you really want your collection of vintage Virginia Andrews on the shelves behind you? Is there too much glare from the window? Hopefully your pitch will be so incredible they won’t be able to drag their eyes off you, but it helps if you don’t have weird things in the background.

Do check your settings – make sure the name that shows up in the corner of the Zoom screen is actually yours and not some funny pun you forgot to change [TIP: make it as easy as possible for them to remember who you are]. When you click on the zoom link and it gives you the option of ‘join with audio’ and ‘join with video’ make sure you do this upfront, otherwise the session will start and they will be waiting while you poke around looking for the ‘join audio’ button. (I’m speaking from experience).

Do turn your phone off – turn anything with notifications off. Lock the dog away. Bribe the kids to stay quiet. Put a note on the door forbidding people from knocking. If your chair squeaks, sit still!

Do remember the time difference – your session times will be sent to you in Eastern Standard Time. Living in Perth, it meant my first session was 7.48am which was fine for me because I’m up with the sparrows anyway, but it would be devastating to miss your session because you forgot the time difference.

Don’t rush (but do time yourself) – you only have three minutes so there is no point trying to fit five minutes worth of talking in. They won’t understand a word you say. The ASA in their Pitch Perfect Course say 390 words is 3 minutes of talking. My pitches were between 500-550 words which took around 2 minutes 40-50 seconds when I practiced. On the day though, I ran over in one session and they had to ring the bell and with the other I finished long before my 3 minutes were up. Perhaps I forgot something or spoke to fast… I will never know.

Do have notes nearby – I wrote about 5 versions of each pitch before I was happy, and then after days of practicing, knew which bits I was likely to forget. I typed my pitch with the first few words of each section BOLDED and the bits I always forgot highlighted. Then I stuck this on the wall just above my camera’s line-of-sight (so if I glanced at it, I didn’t have to look wildly off in another direction). I also kept a copy of one of my comparison books on hand, so when the publisher asked how I imagined by book would look, I held it up and she knew instantly what I was getting at. As one of my books was non-fiction, I had a list of chapter headings on hand in case they asked.

Do remember your goal – it’s important to remember that this is just a single step in a very long journey. They very best you can hope for is a ‘match’ which means they want to hear more [note: you will be told precisely what ‘more’ involves by the ASA. It might be a 300 word synopsis and a brief bio or it might be the whole manuscript.] You won’t get any feedback during the session, and unlikely (but not impossible) you will get an instant response.

Do be realistic about what a yes means – matching with an agent or publisher is just a chance to show them more, it’s not a guaranteed publishing contract.

Don’t forget your comparative texts – help contextualise your manuscript by mentioning a couple of comparative texts or authors. Be realistic though. My friend Rachael Keene, shortlisted for the 2020 Banjo Prize (name drop name drop) also reminded me of the importance of talking about universal themes. As something who doesn’t usually think about themes when writing, this was a challenge for me, but now it’s the ONLY way I describe my books (my plots can be a bit complicated).

Do have a glass of water – pitching is nervy work, have a glass of water on hand.

Don’t expect your session to start exactly on time – none of my sessions started on time, but it was only a few minutes wait. Be ready – when the little motif starts spiralling on the screen you have only a second or two to compose yourself.

Do listen for any feedback or comments – if agents/publishers ask questions or make comments, try and remember what they say. Chances are, you should work this info into your next pitch.

Do be prepared for a yes – if you get a match you don’t want to make the publisher or agent wait a week while you perfect your synopsis. Polish your manuscript and have a 200 and 300 word synopsis and short bio ready to go. Look at the submission criteria of the publisher you are pitching to, so you can get an idea of what they might ask for.

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All in all, my three pitches went as well as I could have hoped, despite an electrician asking if he could turn off the power literally one minute before one session started and the dog running into the room barking like the possessed during another session.

I was lucky enough to have one publisher ask to see my manuscript before my three minutes were up, but I am still waiting to hear if I matched with either of the other two.

My one take-home message for writers is that you cannot underestimate the value in pitching face-to-face to your dream publisher (even if their submissions are open). And even if that means missing out on pitching to someone whose list might be closed or who might have the ‘bigger name’ then it is probably well worth that cost.

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Publishers and agents present at December 2020 ASA Literary Speed Dating:

Fremantle Press

Harlequin

UNSW Press

Pantera Press

Penguin Random House

Thames and Husdon

Affirm Press

Hardie Grant

Pan Macmillan

Booktopia

Simon and Schuster

UQP

Allen and Unwin

Shaw Literacy

Melanie Ostell Literacy

Curtis Brown

Left Bank Literacy

Sarah McKenzie

Alex Adsett

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