How Pitching a Novel Is Like Being in the Secret Service

For seven years, I had the pleasure of being a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. During that time, I conducted a variety of criminal investigations involving counterfeiting, check fraud, wire fraud, and even cell phone cloning. However, much of what I did included the duties that most people associate with the agency – protection. For more than four of my seven years with the USSS, I was based in Washington D.C. which is not only our nation’s capital, but the protection capital of the world. I learned many lessons while working assignments protecting the President, Vice President, and visiting heads of state. One of those lessons was that most protection assignments involve common factors. Those factors are:

  • Standing
  • Waiting
  • Uncertainty
  • Risk
  • Being Ready to React
  • Periods of Discomfort
  • Relief When it’s Over

Currently, I’m a crime fiction writer and I was lucky enough to have found some success, particularly with my first novel, RESOLVE, which was a Thriller Awards finalist in 2014. The Thriller Awards are hosted by the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization, a group to which I happen to belong. Each year, they host a wonderful conference called Thrillerfest and a component of that event is called Pitchfest. Pitchfest is an opportunity for writers to make a verbal pitch to literary agents in the hopes that the agent will request to see your latest manuscript and subsequently wish to represent you. As my previous agent closed up shop, I decided to take my latest work to Pitchfest in an effort to land an agent.

Approximately 50 literary agents and some publishers were set up among several rooms at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan. Writers flooded the rooms, lined up, and pitched to whatever agents were partial to their particular genre or writing style. As the event went on, I discovered several things were involved in working my way through Pitchfest.  Such as:

  • Standing
  • Waiting
  • Uncertainty
  • Risk
  • Being Ready to React
  • Periods of Discomfort
  • Relief When It’s Over

Sound familiar?

ITW does an outstanding job of organizing the event, but by its nature, one will be standing for long periods of time. The event is over two hours long, and it would be impossible to get the opportunity to speak to every agent (nor would you want to since some would not represent your type of manuscript). So, a great deal of time is spent standing and waiting.
I’m fairly certain none of the literary agents had plans to put a bullet in my chest, but I discovered there was a certain amount of risk involved.

Knowing you will only get to speak to eight or nine agents, you have to have a strategy and do a risk assessment to determine how to get to your high-priority representatives. While there is an inherent amount of uncertainty in the process, you can better your odds by having a solid plan and avoiding going down the wrong path.  For instance, if you write paranormal and you make a poor decision by standing in line for an agent who is not looking for paranormal manuscripts, then you have wasted a huge amount of time that could have been used to approach someone who loves paranormal novels.

You have to be able to react on a moment’s notice. Perhaps you are in a long line and you suddenly notice an agent on your priority list has a much shorter line. You may have to jump ship and bolt across the room. Additionally, some agents will ask you questions about your book. One would be wise to be able to answer questions about something he or she wrote. This is why, just as in law enforcement, preparation and training are the keys to success. Hopefully, you have spent weeks preparing for multiple contingencies and have trained yourself to answer questions about yourself and your writing.

Hey, dozens – if not hundreds – of people are stuffed into these rooms. Air conditioning can only do so much and there will be some discomfort. Nervous writers are sometimes shoulder to shoulder with each other and everyone is talking. It’s hot and nobody wants to take a break, out of fear of missing out on talking to a great agent. Many writers (like me) dress up a little for the occasion, which means a sport coat or suit jacket. If I would have added a ballistic vest under the dress shirt, it would have been déjà vu all over again.

Few things felt better than when I’d watch Air Force One take off. Someone on the radio would say the words, “Wheels Up” and I’d know I’d done all I could have and now I could let my guard down a little. I had the same feeling at the end of Pitchfest. I’d performed as well as I could and nobody died (I think). Assuming some of the agents asked for samples of your work, it could still be weeks or months before you find out if one wants to represent you and take your manuscript to various publishers. But, you have to allow yourself a moment of relief. You can’t put the gas pedal to the floor all of the time. Maybe that’s why ITW gives you tickets for two free drinks to use at a reception the evening after Pitchfest.


Writers of all levels – from first-time novelists to madly famous authors – mingle about and enjoy the company. For a couple of hours, hundreds of people with incredibly creative minds come together to talk about anything and everything.

If you look carefully, you will notice that those who took part in Pitchfest all have cloud bubbles above their heads. In that comic strip thought bubble, you’ll likely see two words: “Wheels Up”.

Have you attended Pitchfest, or a similar event? What are your thoughts?  Comment below!


J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
Twitter @JJHensleyauthor


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.



In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.


Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air

 And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology

Legacy cover



14 thoughts on “How Pitching a Novel Is Like Being in the Secret Service

  1. Monica Bruno

    Hi J.J., although I didn’t go to PitchFest, this was my first year attending ThrillerFest. I was amazed by the talent around me and how approachable everyone was. What a great event! I enjoyed your story, good luck finding an agent!

    1. J.J. Hensley Post author

      I only went to the awards last year. This time I was fortunate enough to have participated on a panel and got to watch many others. They do a great job. I’m glad you had a good time!

  2. Heather Kelly

    Great, entertaining post (as always!). Loved the comparisons. 🙂 Thrillerfest sounds like such fun! Maybe some year I’ll travel down to check it out.

    I help run a regional SCBWI conference (the New England one), and I’ve been thinking about ways to support writers and illustrators who meet with agents and editors. I’ve seen writers burst into tears even after a great critique from an agent. It’s such a stressful thing!! I think setting expectations is huge when meeting people who could connect a writer with their dream. So many writers I know expect an agent or editor to sign them on after meeting them, instead of thinking of it as a mutual job interview, or a learning experience.

    1. J.J. Hensley Post author

      Thanks, Kelly. It was an interesting experience. There wasn’t much critiquing since you had 3 – 5 minutes to pitch, so it was important to make your case fast. I was surprised that some writers didn’t seem to treat it like a job interview and were either not fully prepared or were not appropriately dressed. You only get a limited time, so why wouldn’t you make the best impression possible? Thanks for the comment.

  3. Mike Fuller Author

    Was there any cost involved in this conference? Or could anyone walk in and talk to an agent? I see the educational benefit for both author and agent but the efficiency of the process eludes me. After all it is about the work. Does the author’s smiling face and pitch skill sell books? It seems an agent can review scads more material in a quiet New York office on their computer than in a conference room at some hotel.

    1. J.J. Hensley Post author

      Thrillerfest isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it. And with Pitchfest you get face to face contact with agents and have an opportunity to have your story leap out from the hundreds of query letters they get. They don’t sign you there, but decide if they want you to send them your work. I’d have to say it betters your odds significantly.

  4. Marc Cameron

    Well said. Sorry I missed ITW this year. It would have been good to meet another former LEO in the writing business. I sold my first book pitching at a conference back in 2003, while I was still working with the US Marshals Service. You are right on target with the comparisons. Are you going to Bouchercon?
    Best of luck,

    1. J.J. Hensley Post author

      I usually only go to Thrillerfest, but we’ll see. I did my internship with the USMS in college and intended to go that direction. The testing and hiring schedule just never worked out. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Marc Cameron

        I worked with USSS agents quite a bit over the years–especially around UNGA time every year in NY. Even recruited one to come over to the Marshals in Alaska. Secret Service is a great agency.
        See you at Thrillerfest next year then.
        Best of luck with your writing endeavors.

  5. Pingback: My Top Five Highlights from ThrillerFest X | Monica Bruno

  6. Pingback: My Top Five Highlights from ThrillerFest X ~ Monica Bruno

  7. theryanlanz

    Per your earlier permission, I’ve scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on March 19th! Sorry it took me so long. It includes your credit/bio/link back to your website. Thanks!


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