Pitch Wars is dead. Long live Pitch Wars.
My 2020 alumni chat, now the penultimate mentee class, gathered in our Discord chat for a virtual group hug, expressing sadness, surprise, and gratitude for the program and one another. The 2021 mentees, fresh off the emotional rollercoaster of the agent showcase, seemed stunned and anxious about what this meant for their future. Many writers who had aspired to mentorship through the program grieved for future opportunities lost.
For myself, I felt bummed because I had planned to apply to become a mentor this year, a step which I looked forward to as a kind of initiation and a way to give back to the community that has given me so much.
All good things must come to an end.
With all that said, for me, the sadness came with understanding and acceptance. The Pitch Wars program was run entirely by volunteers. It was a Herculean undertaking that matched literally hundreds of mentees and mentors in multiple genres and audience brackets.
The team of volunteers worked incredibly hard behind the scenes to create a mostly seamless experience for applicants and mentees. They maintained a high level of professionalism and consistency while doing so, even when the going got tough. I can’t blame Brenda and other volunteers for feeling burnt out, especially after ten years of running the program!
As an alumna who owes so much to Pitch Wars, I still intend to find a way to volunteer as a mentor in the community, whether that means applying for Author Mentor Match, Rogue Mentor, other future programs, or simply offering independent mentorship. At the same time, I am certain that new mentorship programs and spiritual descendants of Pitch Wars will spring up in its absence.
Nature abhors a vacuum, after all. And some awesome folks are already thinking about how they can step up to fill the void left by this iconic heavyweight in the writing mentorship world.
If I’m honest, I didn’t expect Pitch Wars to pull the plug. I really thought it would go on indefinitely. Now that it has ended, though, its demise seems like a foregone conclusion. In its wake, I find myself thinking about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Pitch Wars, based on my own experience as well as those others have shared with me.
The good: lifting each other up, knowledge-sharing, and community
On the whole, the end of Pitch Wars feels like a significant loss. I got so much out of this program and wanted to stay engaged with it in future. It wasn’t perfect, but it had huge value to me professionally and personally.
Just finding a network of writers who were serious about publishing was a tremendous boon for me as a newbie to the industry. I didn’t even need to get picked as a mentee to start engaging with the preexisting community that had sprung up around Pitch Wars. I met my awesome CPs in Pitch Wars forums and chat rooms, and I learned so much about writing, querying, and publishing from those spaces.
The opportunity to learn from one’s peers is invaluable. That goes for my relationship with my mentor, my friendships with other mentors, and the tight-knit writers’ group my class became. I think Pitch Wars offered a learning experience unparalleled by any other program, more of an unofficial lightning MFA than a workshop. Some of that goes back to community, too—the chance to learn side by side with the talented writers in my class taught me so much and stretched my vision for what I could do with my own work.
My mentorship experience with Ren Hutchings, and the friendship that grew out of it—friendships, as I have also benefited from getting to know Ren’s brilliant and talented mentee group—is priceless. It’s revelatory to work on a project you have loved for so long with someone who loves it too. It taught me not to fear edits or edit letters (even if they were 14 pages!) and how much a book can change in revisions without losing its core story.
Ren was an exceptional mentor for me, unflaggingly positive, respectful of my process, and magically capable of taming my draft’s chaos into a cohesive whole. I wouldn’t give them up for the world. That’s a big reason I’m sad to see Pitch Wars go. I want other writers to have the opportunity to build that kind of nurturing creative relationship.
Finally, Pitch Wars provided a structure for agented and published writers to lift up, develop, and empower new talent. It gave me a model to aspire to as a new writer, expanding how I saw my future role in the community. It showed me a broader role that went beyond seeking publishing success for myself.
Watching past mentees become mentors, I envisioned a path for myself on which I could turn around and offer guidance to others who shared my publishing dreams. And that idea of giving back might be the biggest gift Pitch Wars gave me.
The bad: a hotbed of competition
With all that good, there is bound to be a dark side, right?
In my opinion, the overtly competitive nature of Pitch Wars did not always promote healthy attitudes among mentees and hopefuls. My experience is that this issue arose mostly from the mechanics of the showcase. The application process itself is inevitably competitive, of course, but that competition didn’t take place in public. The showcase did.
There is definitely room for debate on this topic, as more than one mentee has mentioned that the agent showcase drew them to the program in the first place. The opportunity to get one’s work in front of agents without cold querying is a powerful incentive that sets it apart from other mentorship programs.
I’ve discussed the mental health impacts of the Pitch Wars showcase on my blog before. When a class all begins querying at more or less the same time, when the number of requests and requesting agents are public knowledge, and when it feels like the whole writing community is watching, it is almost impossible to keep your eyes on your own paper.
The self-control and self-awareness required to avoid comparison in such conditions is difficult for everyone, even in the best of circumstances. I think it would take superhuman levels of either ego or ego death to not compare one’s showing with others. And when you add individual mental health challenges, sensitive artistic souls, and an extremely limited resource (agent representation), you have a recipe for intense disappointment, jealousy, and discouragement.
Anecdotally, I know that people have quit writing after showcase, some temporarily, others indefinitely. Others who didn’t quit, including myself, struggled to regain emotional equilibrium. Querying is difficult enough to process when your progress seems to stall and you’re the only one who knows it. But feeling a public spotlight on your efforts while you tread water can bring on a sense that you volunteered as tribute in the Author Hunger Games.
The program’s branding (“Wars”) reinforced this adversarial perception. I don’t think this was ever intentional or malicious at ALL, to be clear – it belongs more in the category of unintended consequences. The origin of the brand and the brain wave that led to the program’s founding is, of course, “Cupcake Wars,” a baking competition reality show.
Innocuous on its face, but the competitive atmosphere could be stressful for mentees and agents “fighting” each other for opportunities. Mentors, too, felt the strain, competing for mentees and taking on some level of responsibility for their outcomes. The public nature of the showcase raised the stakes on all that stress.
The ugly: heavy lies the head that wears the crown
Pitch Wars grew larger every year with all the challenges and growing pains confronted by social institutions at size. It was unquestionably the biggest and most high-profile peer mentorship program for up-and-coming authors, with a large number of applicants, a reputation for producing quality books by industry-savvy professionals, and a high reported rate of success in helping writers find agents.
That reputation became a double-edged sword that sharpened over time as the program became more well-known. Because of Pitch Wars’ perceived influence and professional cachet in the writing community, the community expected a high standard of leadership. Critics ultimately held that leadership responsible for individual issues between mentees and mentors as well as systemic problems.
I don’t think this is particularly unfair, to be clear. Good leadership means impeccable integrity, a commitment to equity, and accepting accountability when the reality falls short. But in practice this led to a lot of free labor and heartache for the team of volunteers who had to manage the logistics of the event itself along with public outcry whenever someone took a misstep. This takes a toll, and it makes for a thankless job.
Missteps did happen. There was drama at times, behind the scenes and openly on social media. There were legitimate callouts aimed at policies that negatively impacted historically underrepresented applicants. Not all matches between mentors and mentees worked out or met expectations. Some mentors went above and beyond while others met minimum requirements, so mentee experiences varied.
In my experience, though, the program did its best to meet community expectations and made adjustments when called for. No institution made up of imperfect humans can be perfect, and some of these challenges were unavoidable. I don’t have a good solution for most of them. But they definitely should inform the administration of future programs.
Are pitch events and mentorships a thing of the past?
Definitively, the answer is no. Other mentorship programs exist, some new and some well-established, and social media pitch events have proliferated lately.
PitMad itself, however, had outgrown its usefulness to some extent. Its popularity made it too big and overwhelming for many agents and writers alike. It regularly trended on Twitter, making it a target for spammers. It had so many participants that it became harder and harder to distinguish oneself from the hundreds of other pitches vying for agent attention.
In future, I expect to see more small pitch events spring up that are genre, audience, or identity-specific. I actually think this works better for authors and agents because it’s more targeted and less overwhelming. Some of my best experiences in pitch events came from LGBTNPit, for instance, when agents were looking specifically for books like mine that feature queer characters in SFF worlds.
I will say again, though, that my agent didn’t request my book in Pitch Wars (I don’t think she participated) or in a Twitter pitch party. I cold-queried Maeve because her manuscript wishlist was a fantastic match for my book. Cold querying works and seeking out agents instead of waiting for them to issue an invitation is still an effective way to get representation.
At the same time, I know many people who found their agents directly through the Pitch Wars showcase or through a PitMad tweet. And I even sold my first book after an editor liked my PitMad pitch! Plus, the skills of crafting a pitch and revising on a tight timeline are invaluable regardless of the outcomes.
Building on Pitch War’s legacy – envisioning the future
Even with the ups and downs discussed above, I’m sorry to see Pitch Wars go. But its positive legacy deserves to be carried forward. It lays a foundation upon which the next generation of mentorship programs can build.
What would that look like? Here are a few ideas.
Prioritization of historically underrepresented writers
This year’s Pitch Wars showcase was beautifully diverse—more so, I think, than previous years. Seeing that made me feel optimistic about the future of the program and of publishing. Now that Pitch Wars is gone, I want to see new programs take this further and build on that legacy of diversity.
This shouldn’t be controversial, even though I know it has been and likely will continue to be. We need diverse books and the publishing industry is very much dominated by a certain demographic (white, neurotypical, abled, cis, straight, you get the picture). Even if editors and agents are as well-intentioned about diversity as they can possibly be, the impact of implicit bias is very real. The same can be said for mentors making mentee selections.
Implicit or unconscious bias operates outside of the person’s awareness and can be in direct contradiction to a person’s espoused beliefs and values. What is so dangerous about implicit bias is that it automatically seeps into a person’s affect or behavior and is outside of the full awareness of that person.Georgetown University, National Center for Cultural Competence
For instance, even agents seeking to represent authors of color may reject a story that doesn’t represent a tokenized or stereotypical experience because it doesn’t ring “true” to them, or because it’s “too much.” Neurodiverse authors may find the querying process itself inaccessible with its seemingly arbitrary rules, varying guidelines, and apparent trick questions. Queer authors have been pressured to come out in order to validate their perspective on their own existence, or excluded because they married a person of a different gender.
We’ve all seen the Twitter controversies. Now, if we believe the purpose of a mentorship program is to open doors in publishing, it’s crucial to open those doors wide to diverse voices. This goes beyond a non-discriminatory open application policy to active prioritization of those voices. I would like to see an explicit commitment to this priority from future programs.
This must start with meaningful representation at all levels of leadership, extend to intentionally diverse mentor and mentee selection, all the way to seeking a diverse slate of participating agents.
Given the challenges of administrative burnout and the problems of entrenched power, future programs might consider a different leadership model. I can imagine a rotating committee, with term-limited positions of two or three years. This would allow leaders to benefit from past years’ experience but prevent any one person from bearing the weight of decision making and criticism for too long.
It would also establish another way for writers to participate in community and gain valuable experience. Some members might graduate from mentee to mentor to leader before passing the torch and their institutional knowledge to the next group of leaders.
I’m just spitballing here, of course—such a model would certainly bring its own challenges. But the idea is to avoid building the infrastructure on the backs of just a few people.
A less public request model
I would like to see future mentorship programs take a less public approach to agent attention in a showcase situation. Although Pitch Wars took the positive step of hiding agent requests until the showcase ended in recent years, I still think the ability to view everyone’s requesting agents and number of requests breeds a competitive atmosphere that harms more than it helps.
This doesn’t represent the norm in publishing, where request rates during querying and submission periods are usually kept private, and agents have no visibility on how many others request.
I still think the showcase is thrilling for mentees and provides value by providing visibility from agents, so I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One possible solution might be funneling requests to a private inbox run by the program or directly to the mentor, rather than making comments public.
A cooperative brand and mission
I feel some readers may roll their eyes at this, but bear with me. Branding is important! It sets expectations and intentions. It’s why establishing a strong mission statement is the first step in strategic planning for nonprofit organizations, for example.
To that end, I hope future programs step away from the competitive framing of “wars” and “contests.” Instead, maybe focus on community, learning, and authorship as a journey, not a fight with winners and losers.
Personally, I’m all in for Pitch Trek: the Next Generation. Yes, this is a nerd joke, but hear me out. What better inspiration for the mentorship program of the future than an IP with themes of exploration, diversity, friendship, and integrity in leadership?
Since Pitch Wars began as a YA-only program, YA books still did the best even in recent showcases, or at least that’s been my perception. As Lyssa pointed out in her thread linked above, “at various times in the last year, more than half the NYT YA bestsellers were PW affiliated.” That’s a tremendous impact!
I’m on the fence about this one, but part of me really wants an SFF or even science fiction-specific mentorship program that could bring similar positive impact to my favorite genre. Historically, sci fi mentees got limited requests in the agent showcase because not many SF agents participated (to be fair, it’s a small pool to begin with). Also, because SFF trends toward larger word counts, it was harder to complete edits during the limited time afforded to the mentorship portion of the program.
A longer mentorship period
This one has obvious pros and cons. A short (2.5 month at most) time period for Pitch Wars mentees contributed to stress and burnout for both mentors and mentees. Further, the gold ring of showcase may have incentivized some mentees to enter the querying trenches before their manuscripts were ready. This was especially true in recent years when the mentors no longer made those calls—a policy change that was made for understandable reasons, empowering mentees to decide for themselves.
I’m not sure I would eliminate the deadline and therefore the showcase altogether. Even Star Trek uses a ticking clock to build excitement and investment! Besides, the well-established and respected Author Mentor Match program already provides a more flexible mentorship model. But for a showcase-focused program, it might be nice to have a longer editing period, maybe 4-6 months.
The downsides here: a more lengthy commitment for mentors and less downtime for program administration. In a yearly program, much of the work for administration still occurs outside of that editing period. Mentor selection for Pitch Wars began in June, mentee applications started in September, and the mentorships started in November, with it all culminating in the February showcase. Theoretically, that gave the volunteer team three whole months to work on things other than Pitch Wars, though I would guess most performed significant labor during that down time (planning, website and blog maintenance, announcements, etc.).
A long-lived program would have to remain sustainable for everyone involved, not at all an easy feat.
Thanks to everyone who read this extremely lengthy blog post all the way to the end. I probably should have split it out into two. Just shooting myself in the foot as far as content, I guess! But my thoughts about the pros and cons naturally led into ideas for innovation, and I have Other Stuff I want to write about here next week, so y’all get the full long form version.
If you have ideas for what you would like to see in future mentorship programs, thoughts on the legacy of Pitch Wars, or personal experiences to share, I would love to hear them, so leave them for me in the comments!