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March 10, 2015

Manuscript Pitch Websites: Do Literary Agents Use Them?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, a writer contacted me to ask about,"a website that blends the worlds of literary agents and writers under one roof."

For Writers:
You’ll have the ability to have your pitch/pitches read by hundreds of literary agents. With the click of a button an agent can request your manuscript and instantly an email will be sent to you as well as a notice to your homepage....

For Agents:

As an agent you’ll have the ability to search through pitches by specific genres. With the click of a button a request of materials will be sent to any pitch you like, this request letter will be completely customized by you as a field in your personal profile.
The question the writer wanted to ask me was whether WriterPitch's Terms and Conditions posed a problem, specifically the User Content clause:
You grant to a worldwide, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, adapt, publish, translate and distribute your user content in any existing or future media. You also grant to the right to sub-license these rights, and the right to bring an action for infringement of these rights.
I told her that this language was not ideal--it'd be preferable if the license were limited to operation of the service--but that it's also very common. You'll find similar language on just about any website that accepts user content. It's not intended to enable the site to rip off users' intellectual property, but to allow the site to operate online.

Such language is a concern, and if you're going to participate in a website whose Terms include it, you need to understand it and its implications. With WriterPitch, however, there's a much more pressing question.

Will agents use it?

Manuscript pitch websites, a.k.a. manuscript display sites or electronic slushpiles, often present themselves as new! Revolutionary! Disruptive! Truth is, they've been around for as long as I've been doing Writer Beware (more than 15 years now--gulp).

First appearing in the late 1990s, they were billed as writers' Great New Hope for getting around the antiquated system of gatekeepers. Problem was, agents didn't take to them. By the turn of the century, most were defunct. The earliest and biggest, Authorlink, survives only as a publishing service.

Over the years, many iterations of the same idea have surfaced. I've written about some of them here (Agent Inbox, AuthorForSale, Publishers Desk, Agent Artery). Other examples (and looking through my list, I had trouble finding ones that were still alive): The Author Hub, First 3 Chapters, TV Writers Vault, Inkubate.

All these sites are selling a dream: of access, of a shortcut, of a magic ticket that will somehow transform the world of publishing from a buyer's market, where agents pick and choose, into a sellers' market, where agents come to you.

But this was a fantasy in 1998, and it's a fantasy now. I have never seen a pitch site that is able to show evidence that reputable agents regularly use it. Agent Inbox, for instance, which boasts a large roster of agents and has been around since 2009, cites just one success story. Others cite none at all.

Unconvinced? I reached out on Twitter to ask agents whether they would use a website like WriterPitch.

The response was unanimous: No. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for screenshots of agents' tweets). Some feel it's extra work they don't have time for--they're already awash in queries, why go looking for more? Others have no interest in a website full of pitches unvetted for quality. Still others point out that just as writers are looking for agents who get them, agents are looking for writers who want them. They prefer writers who target them specifically, rather than tossing a pitch out into the world for anyone passing by.

Another concern: even if pitch websites (or pitch events--#pitmad or #tenqueries, for instance) draw reputable agents, they may also draw inexperienced or questionable ones. There are some excellent names on WriterPitch's tiny list of member agents, but there are also some with iffy track records, or from fledgeling agencies that haven't yet made any sales. An agent contact you receive as a result of a pitch site listing may not be the kind of contact you're really looking for.

WriterPitch founder Samatha Fountaina says that WriterPitch aims to become more than just an author-agent matching service. "It's all about helping each other," she told me in email, "and giving writers a place to concentrate their web presence with a personal writers profile, their pitches, and blog posts about writing. Writers can even see how many page views their blog posts or pitches have received. This site is brand new and is evolving and that's in part because of the amazing writers that are part of WriterPitch. We hope to grow into something that writers look to."

Time will tell. In the meantime, unlike some other pitch sites, WriterPitch appears to be free. So there's probably no harm in using it. But if you do, don't pin all your hopes of finding an agent on it--and definitely don't stop querying the old-fashioned way.

EDITED 3/12/15 TO ADD: Writers take note: WriterPitch's Terms currently don't include any provisions for terminating your account and removing your material. Samantha has informed me that these will be added soon.


Pat Dilloway said...

It's a good idea in theory. If an agent wanted more of a specific genre or involving a specific trope, he/she could go to the website and do a search. But it's not going to work in the real world.

Kristin Márie said...

I never thought this site might replace traditional querying. I can only speak for myself but I had no intention of simply closing up shop once my query was posted. Nor, did I think agents would be falling at my feet once the site went live.

I had done well in #agentmatch and based my decision to join on that. I will always research any agent/publisher who makes a request. And, there have been people I never subbed to for various reasons.

But, I am a believer in "nothing ventured, nothing gained". So, I put myself out there. It doesn't make me less serious or less talented than those choosing not to use it.

Sarah said...

Thanks for this! I was wondering.

Darth Lolita said...

I can definitely see why agents would prefer it you'd reach out for them specifically rather than have them find you by chance on a website. If you're hopefully going to start up a close working partnership with an agent, it might as well start with some effort.

Mel said...

I echo what Kristin Marie, said. I don't think it's meant to replace querying. And putting yourself out there does nothing against credibility. The writing will speak for itself. If a door way opens that way great, if a query does, great, too! Maybe it will take off, maybe it won't. The motivation behind it is with good intention. If it helps one writer achieve their dreams, I'm happy.

Kimberly VanderHorst said...

Fascinating post, and you bring up some valid points. Personally, I joined WriterPitch for the networking, and have already met some very talented authors. I know from behind the scenes chatter that there are plans in the works to make it a multi-functional site, and I don't think its sole focus is, or will be, "Come find an agent!" It's built up enough steam and enough positive author interactions to become a force for good.

That said, I do worry about the inexperienced authors who don't realize all agents are not created equal, or who spend so much time on their social media presence connected to the site that they neglect their querying or writing processes. IF the site is seen as a replacement for querying, it will do irreparable harm to those too inexperienced to know better. If it is viewed in a similar light to pitch contests (which some agents adore - and others disdain), then it will simply be another medium through which authors can connect and support each other. Perhaps, instead of issuing a warning, some cautionary advice recommending the site admin provide authors with a disclaimer might be more helpful?

Robert Crompton said...

It's like an independent slush pile really.

Anonymous said...

I believe Samantha has good intentions with this, but if there is no quality control over entries, I don't see why agents would bother checking the site. They are flooded with queries as it is.

John Berkowitz said...

Victoria, I'm impressed by the level of research that went into this reporting. Actually asking the thousands of active literary agents out there for their unbiased opinions about this kind of site is brilliant.

It is unfortunate that fewer than a dozen answered you.

In fact, nearly double that many -- 19 -- have registered with #WriterPitch in the two weeks since it went live. I see that you are swift to point out that many of those agents may be "iffy" or inexperienced, however I presume the same ratio could be applied to the agents that replied to you. Both groups of agents came from the same pool, after all.

Despite your research and obvious opinion, there is a glaring flaw in your conclusion. The fact that the Twitterverse and Blogosphere are both flooded with success stories resulting from such popular events as #MSWL, #PitchMadness/#PitMad, #AgentMatch, #PitchSlam, #NestPitch, #PitchWars, and so on clearly indicate that many, many agents do regularly go looking for talent outside of their slush piles. Naturally, agents want to be chosen. But I doubt the majority have so much hubris that they would refuse a quality client that they discovered on their own.

Finally, I wonder for whose benefit you posted your warning about #WriterPitch. Are you telling writers to beware? Or are you warning agents away? And why, exactly? If an agent is seeking a MG book about trolls, they can tweet about it to their followers, put it in their wish list on their site, and possibly broadcast it during the occasional #MSWL events. And sit back and wait. Or they can search for one on #WriterPitch in about five minutes, and possibly discover other things that entice them. As for writers, there is nothing but positive reinforcement and community waiting for them at #WriterPitch. As the site and membership grows more features will be added, including pitch exchanges and coaching. As a community writers typically help one another and seek to improve one another's craft. The pitches presented on #WriterPitch will only improve. At worst they are no different than any other slush pile (except that most slush piles are not searchable).

Really, Victoria, you should expand your thoughtful and thorough research to actually participating in the dynamic and blossoming #WriterPitch community. See how it works, help it evolve and grow. Come, create a profile and see how quickly the positive feedback and support floods in. If you haven't already.

Victoria Strauss said...

Hi, John,

Thanks for your comment.

I truly do understand why writers want sites like WriterPitch to work. Agents querying writers--it's a dream come true. And it would be great if WriterPitch was the one that succeeded. Given the history of such sites, though, and the fact that they've been popping up in various forms for well over a decade without ever getting agents to adopt them as a serious alternative to the traditional query process, I'm not very hopeful.

Where sites like WriterPitch can work is in the community aspect--writers networking with other writers, and sharing critiques, information, and support. Although I think WriterPitch will have to work hard to distinguish itself from large, already-established writers' communities like Authonomy and Wattpad.

How "flooded" is the Internet, really, with success stories from events like #PitMad, #AgentMatch, etc.? That would be interesting to know. Brenda Drake is collecting #PitMad success stories; I look forward to that information. (It looks as if #AgentMatch got many requests, but so far has managed only one match--unless I'm misreading Samantha Fountain's blog.)

I received more agent responses than I posted--saying much the same thing as the ones I did post--but I didn't want the post to be too long. Sure, the number of actual responses is small, compared to the number of agents active on Twitter--but the responses are all from really excellent agents, and if these agents feel this way, you can bet that plenty of others do, too. As to whether they're "iffy" or inexperienced--no. I'm familiar with most of them (and their track records) by reputation, and those I didn't know I researched to confirm their credentials. I did the same, by the way, for the agents listed at WriterPitch--my comments about that list are not speculative.

Adam Thompson said...

As its free and is not a scam, it could be a useful addition to a writer's tool set.

Lanette said...

I'm curious what you think about Author Salon. They claim to have success stories, but they're pricey and, like you said, agents don't use pitch sites.

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