The Building Blocks of the Pitch, part I: identifying your book

Hello, readers –

As those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform with the prevailing wisdom. GASP! The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now.

If you doubt this, chew on this industry development: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, and I do.) Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 15 months to alter the standard contract, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that within the last couple of months, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? Yet such is the prevailing paranoid that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly they all would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies.

Let no one say that the industry’s standards do not change.

That being said, I’m going to be upfront with you: I do not advise walking into your agent meeting and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications. Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its usefulness: it is equally helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in a hallway and in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book.

But think about it: your agent appointment is 15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous. Do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared?

(If you have trouble imagining the awkward pause that might conceivably ensue, check out yesterday’s blog. And to get my housekeeping duties out of the way early today, if you have not yet made your selections for agent and editor meetings – I’m told that there area still many slots available – check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. Lots of useful information there, even if I do say so myself.)

There’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else: pitch fatigue. At the end of last Saturday’s pitching class, the fabulously talented Cindy Willis and yours truly spent 4 1/2 hours listening to pitches from class attendees. (I am pleased to report that had I been an agent, there were several that I would have asked to read right away.) Now, Cindy and I are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, I think it is safe to say, are almost always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. But after 4 1/2 hours – a far shorter shift than most the agents and editors will be putting in at PNWA – neither of us could even begin to imagine ever wanting to pick up a book again. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail.

And we were outside, listening to dozens of pitches with the advantageous backdrop of glorious weather. Agents and editors at conferences, by contrast, are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

Gather up all of those factors I have just mentioned into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent. Now: what is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to go to the effort of drawing more details about the book out of the pitcher? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why? Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, decorated with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly.

So if I deviate from the received wisdom about pitching here — and I assure you, I will — please be aware that I am not doing it merely to be an iconoclast (although that’s kind of fun, too). I am making these suggestions because I truly believe that they will make your pitch better.

So here is my first unorthodox suggestion: say right away where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble.

Did I just hear the “ding-ding-ding” of alarms going off in the heads of my long-time readers? Yes, my friends, it is time to revisit the dreaded book category. If you are planning to pitch, the best description of your book is NOT “(sigh) well, it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s also suspense. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: “Wah wah wah wah waagh…”

To put it bluntly, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers. And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So tell them up front what kind of book it is – and don’t just make up a category. Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word category description. In order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language. Pick one of their recognized categories.

The generally accepted fiction categories are: Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper;
Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

Pick one. But whatever you do, NEVER say that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always.

For NF, the accepted categories are: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Yes, I’m running through these quickly, but do not despair: the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites, and I went through the distinctions at some length in my blogs of February 13 – 16. Check out the archives.

And when in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding like something that will sell. (And for you doubters out there: yes, naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time. That doesn’t mean you should make one up.)

Yes, it’s a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry. But to put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Tomorrow, I shall delve a bit more into how putting your work into the right box can help you. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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