Whether you’re pitching at Essen or another convention, there’s definitely a process.

My Ultimate Guide to Pitching at Conventions — or, What I've Learned After Several Hundred Pitches
I hesitate to call myself an expert on this one, but my meeting schedule for this Essen is officially full. Actually, a little too full. That said, I’ve made more than a few of the following mistakes so you don’t have to. 

Step 1: Know what you have to offer.

Some folks need to hear this more than others, but you won’t get very far with just an idea. Publishers fairly expect to see you’ve created a physical prototype and have playtested it significantly.
If you have a rulebook, a playtested prototype, and have playtested the game to completion with other people at least a few times, it passes this initial hurdle. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not ready to pitch.

Step 2: Get organized.

My Ultimate Guide to Pitching at Conventions — or, What I've Learned After Several Hundred Pitches
Ah, yes, the spreadsheet. Designers know it and love it (or at least, they’ve learned enough to only swear at them once in awhile), but they’re still an extremely helpful tool.
I’ve published a template of the spreadsheet I use here. Make a copy and edit to your heart’s content. There’s plenty of tips, and of course plenty of room to customize it to your heart’s content.

Step 3: Know who’s coming / figure out who’s going to the convention.

This is more complicated for Essen, since they don’t release the official guides until about two weeks before the convention. The two best sources of information are:
  • The previous year’s guide — a bit of Googling will help for future years, but for now, look at 2018’s Spiel Guide as a starting point.
  • The Tabletop Together tool — for gamers, it’s a great list of seeing what games will be premiering or available at a convention. For designers, it’s a reminder that if the game will be at Essen, the publisher is likely to be there as well.

For others, exhibitors might be listed on the convention’s website, and of course, a publisher might also mention they’re going on their own site or social media

Step 4: Initial / Qualifying Research

Ooooh, fancy term! Nah. The question at this stage is simple: does this publisher make games that resemble your games? All you need right now is a yes or no — if it’s a yes, add them to your database. If it’s a no, choose to either add them to a separate sheet (to avoid duplicate work in the future) or just move on. Work your way down systematically, and think ‘sniper’, not ‘shotgun’.

If you’re looking at Tabletop Together, you might have enough to go on for this stage. Sort by ‘Publisher’ and look at the games they’re releasing. If all they make are three-hour-long brain burners and all your games are party games, cross them off. No point in wasting anyone’s time. Depending on your source and the convention, you might discover shops, accessory makers, or other businesses that don’t make games. Same thing — this shouldn’t take more than a minute or two per publisher.

Step 5: Detailed Research

So we’ve narrowed it down to publishers that might be a fit. This can easily be a time-consuming, down-the-rabbit-hole sort of thing, so feel free to set a timer for each publisher (say 5 minutes).

Look at their official website, their social media channels, and their Board Game Geek page. I’m usually looking for the following pieces of information:

  • Their last 2-3 games
    • Are they similar to any of my games? Are they too similar? (If they’re too similar, a publisher might feel a new game might cannibalize sales of their game already on the market.)
    • Are they all designed by the same person? (This is a sign a publisher / business exists for that person’s benefit — they’ll be unlikely to look at pitches from outside submissions.)
    • Why not their entire line-up? My game’s really similar to something they made in 2001… Directions change, and not every game takes off. It’s not always easy to guess, but between your own experiences seeing it on people’s shelves (or on clearance racks) and Board Game Geek’s listing for the games (how many people say they own it?), you can take a guess.
  • Any upcoming games
    • There may not be much about them, but whatever you can find can help you learn of potential fits.
    • If you use a similar theme or mechanic, that same cannibalization fears will be around.
  • The people that work there
    • Look for the About or About Us page. Who are they? What are they like? Do they have a mascot? How do they talk about themselves (playfully, professionally, etc.)?
    • Figure out who to write your pitch to. Ideally, someone is identified as the person who is tasked with looking at outside submissions. If there isn’t, take your best guess based on titles or their bios. Take a deep breath. Remember most publishers have a pretty small number of staff.
  • Information on how to contact them
    • Look for a Submissions or Authors page first and foremost — if they’ve taken the time to create a page, it usually outlines a process or thing they want you to follow. I only see these about 10-20% of the time – if it’s not in the header or footer menu, move on. If you see one, make it a point to follow their process carefully. Sometimes an automated system will kick out an e-mail missing the correct word / phrase, and poorly following directions doesn’t make a great first impression.
    • Look for a Contact page or an e-mail address.  A publisher’s official website may be out of date, incomplete, or vague. They may not be listed by name or title on the website. People working at publishers are incredibly busy, and for most of them, looking at outside submissions is at the bottom of their priority list.
  • Think about which of your games would be a fit and why. However you picture your game(s), picture them alongside the company’s recent games. Narrow it down to the top ones or best fits — not everything fits with every publisher, and there’s no need to fit square pegs into round holes.
Wow, that’s a lot of research!  Yup. It doesn’t take as long as you think, though, assuming your internet connection is reasonably fast. Stay focused, keep your designer’s hat on, and try not to get distracted by the games.

Step 6: Make the stuff they’ll want to see

Some publishers want a sell sheet. Others like seeing the rulebook. Others prefer a video walkthrough. Whatever it is, they’ll want to convince themselves it’s worth meeting you before setting up a time.
As sell sheets go, there’s plenty of templates out there. Mine currently look like this (click the image for the full-sized version in a new tab):
My Ultimate Guide to Pitching at Conventions — or, What I've Learned After Several Hundred Pitches
Not the fanciest thing ever — graphic designers and people with more talent in that department can do better. It gets the gist of the game across, though, and contains all the important details:
  • The holy trinity (number of players, age range, and time to play)
  • How to play
  • Component list
  • A bit about the game’s story / setting
  • Contact information
Rulebooks are easy enough to share via Google Docs — write it somewhere if you want, but Docs makes it easy to share a link publicly, to allow view-only access, or only allow access to anyone with the link.
Walkthrough videos need not be complicated to be effective. I’ll write out a script for a video, which takes the person watching through:
  • The game’s introduction (who are you, where are you, what are you trying to do)
  • The components of the game (no need to show them all — a representative sample is fine)
  • A turn or round of the game (what players do)

All of my walkthrough videos have been shot with my smartphone and a simple tripod. Add in a selfie stick that plays with a tripod for some extra height if you need it. Upload to Youtube and choose whether to make it ‘Unlisted’ (can only view with the link), ‘Private’ (only those you invite to view the video can view it – kind of a pain in my opinion), or ‘Public’ (searchable and viewable by anyone online). Personally, I make it ‘Unlisted’, which doesn’t require a Youtube account or an invite to watch. They just need the link.

Once this is all created, I put this all on a single webpage for people in the industry (sorry, but it’s not meant for the public — if you’re a designer, reach out and I’ll share the link). I’m a web developer, so this is relatively simple for me (reach out if you’d like some help with this for your own site).

Step 7: set up a place to make appointments online

I was worried it might sound presumptuous to ask publishers to set an appointment with me… but it’s worked brilliantly. (It might go without saying, but if they came back with a link to their scheduler, I’d absolutely use that first, then mark it in my own.)
Modern appointment-scheduling tools are free or low-cost, easy to set up, and only show available times in the time ranges you set up. I’m currently using calendly.com because it has an excellent free option and lets you customize the critical aspects like time zones and availability. (Once all the meetings are set, the dashboard shows you all your meetings as well.) Add that link to your pitch. Another option is youcanbook.me.
Whatever system you use, add buffer time. Essen’s huge, and transporters aren’t yet a thing. It can easily take you 10-15 minutes to get across a larger hall thanks to the crowds. You’re usually forgiven for arriving a few minutes late, of course, but build that into your system to start and arrive a few minutes early.. few deep breaths… pop a breath mint… discreetly apply deodorant…

Step 8: Pitch points, assemble!

OK, now you’ve lost me. What is a ‘pitch point’? 
This is my term for elements that will go into a potential pitch:
  • A standard greeting you’ll personalize
  • A brief blurb about where / how to find more info (specifically, that webpage I set up in the last step)
  • Brief (2-3 sentence) description(s) of your game(s)
  • A call to action, which includes a link to the calendar you set up
Again, think ‘sniper’, not ‘shotgun’. You are NOT sending the same e-mail out to every single person, not after all that research. The next step is all about sending personalized messages (via e-mail, contact form, or perhaps even Facebook), but we’ll copying and pasting some elements instead of typing them out each time.
Personally, I assemble all the pitch points in a Canned Response in Gmail. You could use a Microsoft Word document, a Google Doc, or something else, just as long as it allows you to save formatting (bold, italic, etc.) and links. You’ll never actually send this version of the message to anyone — just copy the parts you need from here into the messages you compose. Triple-check for typos and grammatical issues — stuff missed here might go out dozens of times.

Step 9: put it all together and pitch.

Yep, we’re finally here — hit ‘Compose’ in your e-mail and get typing. Keep your Canned Response or other document. Copy from there, paste into your e-mail.
Pitch one publisher at a time — and specifically, pitch the game(s) that are the best fit. When you’re done, hit send.
Actually sending the pitch is easy — it’s the who and what that are often challenging.
Since we’re doing these one at a time, it will take time — dedicate a couple of hours to this, more if you’re pitching a lot of publishers. I’m angling for an appointment, which in theory means we’ve carved out some time to guarantee some face-to-face time.
How many pitches are we talking about? How long is a piece of string? If you did your research, you may have eliminated quite a few places that just weren’t a fit. I don’t think there’s a ‘perfect’ number, but pitch as many publishers you found that fit your game(s) well.

Step 10: track appointments and follow up

Even with a great pitch and plenty of research, you won’t get an appointment every time. Why?
  • Some won’t respond to the e-mail or message
  • Some aren’t going to the convention in question
  • Some won’t see a fit between your game and theirs
  • Some aren’t interested in that theme or mechanic
  • Some already have a ton of games to produce
  • Some are going a different direction with future games
  • Some might have personnel or financial issues

Don’t take it personally. It happens.

Unless their response was literally ‘don’t ever e-mail me again’, there’s always room for a quick follow-up e-mail. Mine goes like ‘Hey [name], thanks for the response. In the interest of pitching you better next time, what’s that future direction look like? [OR] ‘what would excite you to see come across your desk?’. It keeps the conversation going but also invites them to tell you exactly what they’re looking for… which might just be one of your other games.

Follow up judiciously. A week or two is fair, especially for something as time-sensitive as this.
It’s also worth making a list of the publishers you’d really like to work with in one way or another. I call this my ‘stop-by’ list — as I have time, I’ll make it a point to stop by, say hi, ask a question their website doesn’t answer, connect as humans, ask how their con is going, things like that.

Over to you

How do you pitch? Publishers, anything to add?