GUEST POST: An Agent’s Perspective on Pitch Wars and Other Contests

I’m so excited to have this guest blog from Jennifer Johnson-Blalock today. You all know I’m a total contest junkie, and I talk them up all the time. An agent has a very different perspective from me, both when I was a writer and now that I’m a host/mentor. Read on for some valuable insights.
Ah, August. As much of the publishing industry runs away for one last summer Friday adventure, writers and mentors are hard at work in the early days of PITCH WARS. I won’t get to jump in the excitement with you until November, but I already have one eye on the Twitter feeds. But as the enthusiasm ramps up, I know the anxiety does, too. Contests have their advantages and disadvantages—here are a few thoughts, from an agent’s point of view: 
On the writers’ side…
PRO: Contest acceptance provides validation that you’re on the right track.
Writing a book is HARD, am I right? And for much of the process, you’re tucked away in your writer’s nook, maybe sharing the book with a few critique partners and friends, but not having any real idea of whether your hard work will pay off. With such a long, tough process, it’s important to celebrate every milestone, and getting into a contest is definitely an accomplishment. It lets you know that someone out there thinks your work is good. That’s awesome! 
CON: It can be demoralizing if you don’t get accepted into a contest or don’t get as many requests as you’d hoped.
On the flip side, not receiving that validation is obviously tough. And even if you participate in the contest, when you get to the agent round, you may not get as many requests as other entries, or those requests might not lead to representation. Even though you know there are plenty of other agents out there, rejection always stings. 
PRO: You KNOW agents are looking at your work. 
There’s a myth that I can’t seem to eradicate that agents don’t actually read our queries. It’s true that once an agent gets to a certain level in her career, she usually has someone else look at the queries first. But most of those agents are still reading manuscripts and signing people from their query inbox. And every newer agent I know and I are all reading our queries personally, hoping to find our next project. But for those of you who still aren’t convinced, with a contest, you get the reassurance that agents are going to come and take a look at the entries. 
CON: You don’t choose the agents who participate. 
When you query, you do research (you should be doing research): you look at agency websites, individual agent’s Twitter feeds, #MSWL. When you enter a contest, you research the contest, but then it’s up to the organizers to find agents. So you may get requests from agents you haven’t heard of or who aren’t at the top of your list—though ultimately, you have control over whether you sign with them.
PRO: Contests may expose you to great agents. 
While there are more tools for agent research out there than ever before, there’s now so much information that it may take you some time to locate the perfect agent for you. An agent who requests your work may not be on your list yet (maybe they’re a newer agent eager for clients!), but do your research—she might be a great fit. 
Special Pitch Wars PRO: You get feedback on revisions! 
Pitch Wars can be particularly beneficial because you get a mentor who spends a great deal of time making sure your manuscript is in the best shape possible—truly, an enormously valuable resource. Always keep in mind, though, that while your mentors are talented, successful people, they aren’t the Grand Emperors of the Publishing World. As with any critique or editorial situation, it’s a dialogue. 
On the agents’ side…
PRO: Contests provide curated content. 
At any given point, my query inbox contains numerous queries for things that just won’t work—they’ve been previously published, the story doesn’t fit the genre, the book hasn’t gone through enough revisions. With a contest, I know every entry has met certain standards, and people whom I trust think that the work is ready for an agent to take a look.  
CON: The content isn’t *specifically* curated for the agent.
They have yet to create the Jennifer Johnson-Blalock’s Personal MSWL contest (a girl can dream), so even though the entries are agent ready, that doesn’t mean they’re right for me. Many will be in genres, like SFF, that I don’t represent. And my opinion of a work often comes down to quirky individual preferences that there’s no way a third party can filter for. When I sign on to a contest, though, I’m agreeing to make at least one request, preferably more, so I may take a chance on things I wouldn’t if I’d gotten a query for it. 
CON: Contests can be competitive among agents.
I know exactly how many other agents have asked for something when I request a contest entry, so I feel more pressure than I do with regular queries to read quickly. This can be tough if I have other things—existing client work or just, you know, life—that keep me from reading immediately, so sometimes I feel rushed or miss out on a project. 
PRO: But contests can also be exciting!
While the other agents do create pressure, they also generate excitement. This can be a challenging, lonely business on the agent side as well. It’s fun to see your peers getting enthusiastic about manuscripts—and sometimes a little incentive to work harder or faster isn’t a bad thing. 
The bottom line…
As an agent I participate in contests whenever I feel like I have the time to carefully consider the entries and read promptly. I’m thrilled to be a Pitch Wars agent for the first time, and I can’t wait to see the entries. 
But at the same time, I’m also excited about manuscripts I request through the regular query process. While I may read contest entries slightly faster out of necessity, they don’t get any bonus points when it comes to content. Contests are just one tool I use to find new clients.

And that’s how I’d recommend you look at contests as writers. Definitely enter—they can be a great way to find representation. But know that they’re only ONE way to find representation, and rejection from a contest doesn’t mean rejection from publishing. If you’re an aspiring Pitch Wars mentee, I hope you find the mentor of your dreams and that I get to take a look at your work in November. But if you don’t, check out my Manuscript Wishlist, and think about sending me a query! I promise I’ll be happy to see that, too.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website:
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