Next month (June 6 & 7), Sisters in Crime Los Angeles (SinCLA) and the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America are co-hosting the California Crime Writers Conference. I attended for the first time in 2009, back when I'd just begun writing the book that would eventually become MISTRESS OF FORTUNE.
God, I remember feeling so shy and awkward at that conference. It took every bit of confidence I had to strike up a conversation. At the agents cocktail reception I slunk off to a corner to call my husband, just to tell him I wanted desperately to go hide out in my hotel room. He told me to stick it out, and I did, but the first chance I had I hauled ass upstairs.
Since then, I've become more involved in the conference planning and this year one of my jobs is Manuscript Consultation Coordinator. As part of the conference, attendees who want some face-to-face time with an agent or an acquiring editor pay an additional $50 to submit five pages of their work-in-progress for a 20-minute consultation.
With regard to the "paid" aspect of these consultations, each professional is donating their time to the conference to do them--they're not getting paid directly themselves (though in some cases, conference organizers will pay for their travel). Once there, the professionals appear on panels and attend a cocktail reception for the benefit of all of the attendees.
By the way, I always like to trot this tidbit out: I was the critique coordinator for this conference in 2011, where I met my now good friend, Matt Coyle. I paired him with an agent who ended up signing him. His debut novel, YESTERDAY'S ECHO, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel at Bouchercon in 2014.
Of course, Matt is the exception, not the rule. As I organize the critiques this year, I'm impressed with the quality of the submissions, but I also know from my own query experience that it's important to manage one's expectations. A manuscript consultation is just that--a consultation. It is not a guarantee of anything beyond that.
I also have some helpful hints for anyone who is either querying agents/and or editors or getting gearing up for their own manuscript critiques or pitch sessions at other conferences:
1) Follow directions. It's so simple, and yet there's always a few who don't do it.
2) Keep your pitch brief, but be prepared to tell your consultant what your book is about. Try to be as concise as possible.
3) If you've got a crazy email address, consider updating it to something more professional. I know this sounds nit-picky, but it's kind of important if you're querying.
4) Take the time to do a bit of research about the person(s) you're dealing with. What type of projects they've taken on in the past, what they're looking for now. The Internet puts most of this information at your fingertips.
5) Understand that if an agent asks for a partial or even a full manuscript, it might take time for them to read it. They might, in fact, never get around to reading it. (God, I hate to sound so pessimistic--I really don't mean to be)!
6) Understand that even if one agent/editor isn't interested in taking on your project, it doesn't mean it doesn't have merit. It's just not the right project for them--remember, they can love a manuscript dearly but not have a place to sell it. Rejection hurts, sure, but you can't take it personally.
So, with all of that said, you might be wondering how I personally feel about paid manuscript consultations and/or pitch sessions. In 2009, the same year I attended my first CCW Conference, I also attended the Crimebake Conference in the Boston area. I paid for a manuscript critique of my then unfinished novel and Hank Philippi Ryan was my consultant. Overall, she was very helpful and ultimately gave me some confidence to go forward with my writing. At that time, I wasn't ready to query--I don't think I even had a finished first draft.
Ultimately, my opinion is this: if your manuscript is complete and polished and you're ready to query, a paid consultation such as the ones offered at the California Crime Writers Conference might be a good idea. If you don't have a completed manuscript, you're better off saving your money. Keep writing, keep polishing. Because if that agent or editor says "I love this, send me the full manuscript," you're gonna feel kind of shitty if you've only got fifty pages written. Six months later, when you've finished your book, said agent might not be interested any longer.