Are Pitch Contests Worth It? – Behind the Scenes of Pitch Madness

Pitch Madness graphic created by Literary Agent Jessica Sinsheimer – used with permission

Tomorrow, the 60 finalists for Pitch Madness will be posted on the host blogs, and there will be some people who are very excited and several who are disappointed.

60 finalists out of 487 total entries means that only about 12% of the entrants made it to the final round.

Twelve percent seems like a small percentage, and the odds might seem disheartening. I know. I’ve been there. (I’m there again this time, actually. I pitched my upper middle grade manuscript this time around.) But don’t let the numbers game get you down. I’ve learned so much from contests. Even those I didn’t get into were extremely valuable in building my writing to where it is now.

Besides, even if you didn’t make it to the final round, you may have been really close.

There seems to be a little bit of confusion about pitch contests. (I’ve seen comments ranging from “I might as well enter. It’s nothing more than a crap shoot anyway, and I might get lucky” to “If I don’t make it into the final 60, I might as well hang up my writer’s hat, because if I had any talent I would have made it” – and the whole range of responses in between.) So I talked to Brenda Drake, the Contest Queen behind Pitch Madness, to get the scoop on what happens behind the scenes.

For Pitch Madness, there are four teams, each with two hosts and four slush readers. (Each team will pick 15 finalists for the agent round of judging.)

Round 1: Eight slush readers (two from each team) read through all 487 entries and marked each one with a “yes” or “no” vote. Entries had to receive three “yes” votes to advance to the second round. – Each of the slush readers has the opportunity to label the pitches, so their team members will be able to see their recommendations. (This time, 185 entries – approximately 38% – made it to round two.)

Round 2: The remaining eight slush readers (two from each team) read through all 185 remaining entries. Once again, the pitches need three “yes” votes to advance. – Each of the slush readers has the opportunity to label the pitches, so their team members will be able to see their recommendations. (This time, 102 entries – 55% of the pitches from round one, or 21% of the total pitches – made it to round three.)

Round 3: The hosts and co-hosts read the remaining pitches, paying special attention to those suggested by their slush readers. Each team picks their top fifteen pitches, and both have to agree to the picks. The blog hosts and co-hosts pick these top choices based, in part, on their own preferences (because, let’s face it, we’re always more inclined to pick something that we really like, personally), but also based on the criteria provided by the participating agents. (So if every agent preference list says that they’re tired of robot mermaid post-apocalyptic novels-in-verse, your epic poem about the headstrong daughter of Poseidon, who falls in love with the last robot pirate to survive the nuclear fallout of the fourth world war, has to be AMAZING to make it through to the final round.)

So, in order to advance to the final 60, an entry has to get at least 8 “yes” votes. Three in each of the first two slush rounds and two in the final round. That’s a lot of yesses! And if you’re one of the 60 finalists, congratulations. You’ve already made it pretty far.

But if you didn’t make it to the final round, you might have been REALLY close. Imagine this (purely hypothetical) situation:

Your robot mermaid post-apocalyptic love story receives unanimous “yes” votes from all eight of the round one slush readers. The round two slush readers are equally smitten, each stamping it with a “yes” before passing it on. In round three, this super entry receives a “yes” from the hosts of teams one and three and a “yes” from the co-hosts of teams two and four. But the remaining hosts and co-hosts all remember the robot mermaid love story that hit last year’s bestseller list. And even though THAT book wasn’t a novel-in-verse, the plot lines are similar enough that these hosts/co-hosts are afraid your manuscript won’t stand out. Of course, your entry will be discussed and debated at length, but if one host/co-host can’t convince their teammate, your entry won’t be picked.

Or what about this (also hypothetical) situation:

You’ve written a light-hearted middle grade story about a boy who discovers that the constellations he watches every night will come to life when the full moon crosses the sky. And the round one slush readers like your entry, so it passes on to round two with three votes. In round two, you earn two votes from enthusiastic slush readers, but the other readers aren’t convinced. One vote shy, you’re out of the contest before advancing to round three, even thought it’s possible that the contest hosts/co-hosts would have fought over your pitch.

Granted, I haven’t seen the slush piles. (Since I’m a Pitch Madness contestant myself, Brenda couldn’t give me that much detail into the inner workings of the contest!) I don’t know if any mermaid/robot love stories or animated constellation tales came so close without making it to the final round.

But the point is, it could happen.

So if you’re one of the 427 Pitch Madness contestants that didn’t make it through to the final round, don’t give up!

Take a step back and really look at your pitch and your manuscript. Study the hints and tips provided by the slush readers. (Is your word count within the acceptable range for your category/genre? If you’re writing MG, is the voice consistent with the age range, or does it read more like a YA voice? Do you really know what genre you’re writing?)

If you spent the last week reading the #PitchMadness feed and recognizing your manuscript in every caution, you might need to spend some more time with your manuscript before querying again. You might consider asking a critique partner who hasn’t read it yet to give you feedback on your manuscript. And you might need a few days to process what you’ve learned from this experience before diving back into revisions.

But just because you didn’t make it into the final round doesn’t mean you aren’t ready. Your constellation adventure or epic mermaid poem could be exactly what an agent or editor is looking for right now. This contest might not have been the right venue for putting your work into the world. Perhaps you’d do better with querying the agents directly.

Ready or not, you are a writer. And you will get there, as long as you don’t allow disappointment and setbacks to stop you. Don’t give up. There will be other contests. Other workshops. Other conference pitch fests. Other chances to send queries. And when you’re ready, you can submit again.

14 thoughts on “Are Pitch Contests Worth It? – Behind the Scenes of Pitch Madness

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  1. Great summary–kudos to the people who run these contests, it sounds like a ton of work.

    I participated in pitch madness last year. I did a handful of contests all within a couple months of each other and it was crazy. What I found for me, is everyone liked my idea. The concept was a hit, I tweaked that opening page within an inch of its life, crafted a solid pitch, and got quite a few agent requests collectively from the contests, a mix of partials and fulls. The agent feedback was that they loved the story, the hook, but the character needed further developing. I saw a pattern of the same comments about the character, which then I knew, time to revise and learn how to develop stronger more engaging characters.

    So the pitch contests definitely got me on the right track. I knew I had a good concept, I learned what to do and what not to do for an opening page and a pitch, but i still had work to do on my story. These contests help with that initial pull for sure. Plus, I have a great network of writer friends I made from critiquing and supporting other contest entries. I think the contests are definitely worthwhile, but you will still have more work to do beyond them.


  2. Very inspiring post. As writers, we need so much encouragement to keep going. It is hard when someone you really admire says “no.” For a split second you do want to throw in the towel so you never have to experience that feeling again. But you are so right. You never know how close you were. And you’ll never find out if you quit!


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