Pitching is a peculiar thing — it's exactly what you think it is, unless you're thinking about baseball, in which case, it's kind of like that, too. You throw your idea at an agent, who sits across the table from you, and strategically decides if they're going to take a swing at your idea, or not. If the rumors are true, usually agents choose to stand at the plate and watch your idea land in the catcher's mitt that's already overflowing with book ideas which weren't swing-worthy.
I would imagine the success rate for an agent hitting your pitch is lower than the .333 batting average which earns a hitter respect. Of course when pitching your book, you desperately want the agent to "take a swing" at and, if you're really lucky, "hit" your book idea, so there the baseball analogy fails. (Thank goodness, it was already quite the stretch ;)
You are the pitcher, who WANTS to be hit, which makes no sense. Just another time sport jargon fails to translate into real life.
Tangent: My favorite example of sports jargon failing is "par." In golf, of course, you WANT to be below par, but—in life—deeming a restaurant or hotel "sub-par" is decidedly a bad review. Why? Isn't sub-par good? Answer: only in golf. But doesn't par stem only from golf? Even if not, still, isn't golf the context we most associate par with? If you hear "par" and think of something other than golf, what is it? That last question is not rhetorical, I'm genuinely curious.
Back to pitching, sans baseball.
You sit across the table from one agent in a room full of agents for your time slot (probably 8 or 10 minutes), and now, it's your chance! Your chance to sell your book idea!
Of course, selling a book is nothing like writing a book. It is also a critical step in publishing a book. Everyone wants to write a book, that gets published, but no one wants to sell a book. People (especially non-writers) seem to think these are the steps: write a book --> publish a book. But it's more like write a book --> sell your book idea --> publish a book. And, if we're getting really future-thinking here, and a tad more descriptive:
1. Write a book (and edit extensively)
2. Sell your book idea to an agent
3. Agent sells your book idea to a publishing house
4. Edit your book with help of editor at publishing house
5. Publish your book
6. Sell your book to readers!
Some people hate selling things, but I actually don't mind it. I think double majoring in both English and Business and working for a large corporation for 3+ years has allowed me to approach book-writing a little more realistically than I might have otherwise.
I have now pitched four times and before each pitch I was incredibly nervous. Like doing-power-poses-in-the-bathroom nervous. But, I survived each time, and learned expert advice from agents each time, and was glad I did it each time! Writing conferences will provide info on agents beforehand: make sure you choose an agent who represents your genre. E.g. some agents represent only non-fiction. It's a waste of time (and money) to pitch your fiction book to them.
Rather than attempt a witty hook that could fall flat, I started my pitch with the facts after introducing myself: "I wrote a middle grade contemporary fiction book called (title) that follows (protagonist) as she..." and then went from there. The agents are sitting there (all day, sometimes!) listening to pitch after pitch after pitch of all kinds of genres, so I didn't want to make it too hard for them to follow. Also, things not to mention: This is my first book! I had friends beta read it and they liked it! I extensively edited it! The latter two are a given. The agent sure as heck hopes you edited it and had beta readers. If not, you're pitching it too soon. Also, mentioning it's your first book won't help your chances (and could hurt them), so best not to mention it!
After that, I dove into my pitch (I tried to keep it around 90 seconds) and then waited for feedback. The minutes following the 90-second-or-so pitch, were very conversational. Be prepared to answer incredibly specific questions. If the agent is interested, she'll likely ask you about word count, so know that too. Each time, the agent asked me thoughtful, specific questions (even if she wasn't interested in reading the manuscript), providing valuable insight into what agents look for.
While pitching, I focused on the very next step with pitching: convincing the agent its worth her time to read my book.
You aren't (yet!) trying to convince her to publish thousands of copies and sell the foreign writes and—hey!—what about making it a trilogy with a three-part movie deal, maybe four, depending on box office success? ;)
So, if you walk away from your pitch with an agent asking for sample chapters, or a sample manuscript, yay!!!! But, if you walk away with valuable industry-expert advice for honing your story (or your pitch), it's also great, because you put yourself out there. You made yourself vulnerable. And only out of vulnerability can you really grow as a writer.
Hopefully this was helpful if you're considering pitching—and, if you aren't, I hope it offered some insight into how traditional publishing works and some weird sports analogies to boot. I would love to answer more specific questions if you're prepping for pitching at a writer's conference! Feel free to contact me.
p.s. Writing advice from Cheryl Strayed and writing advice from John Dufresne that helped me manage "step #1."
p.p.s. Since I'm still (always) thinking about this — Does a sub-par golfer hit above par? Or is calling a golfer sub-par a compliment? Real questions, you guys. :)