Yesterday, I introduced those of you new to pitching appointments to its unique joys and stresses. It’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.
Why? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things waiting for us on the other side of our first pitching experience. Like a pitch meeting’s rocketing us to instant fame, or an agent who says, “I hate your plot AND your tie!”
Also the common fantasies about what can happen in such meetings both raise expectations and increase fright. Knowledge really is power, at least in this instance. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively — and psych yourself out less in the process.
If the prospect of pitch preparation appalls you, take heart, my friends: if you have been following this series step by step and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a persuasive formal pitch constructed.
How is that possible, you cry? Here’s a hint: first, you’re going to impress ‘em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ‘em with your storytelling ability.
You’re going to play to your strengths, in other words. And yes, your writing has them, to professional eyes. It’s just a matter of presentation the book so that people focused upon marketing notice them.
To that end, I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book: IT IS A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also why it is MARKETABLE.
Once you understand that — and once you accept that, in within a publishing context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET for you — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch can be seen not as an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but as a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed premise.
Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not.
What a formal pitch can and should be is your taking the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would.
Why, what a coincidence: you have already defined your work in those terms: your book’s category (posts of June 15-19), identifying your target market (June 20-21), coming up with selling points and/or a platform for you and your book (June 22, 23, and 25), inventing a snappy keynote statement (June 26-28), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (June 29-30), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 2-5).
Really, you’re almost there. If it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional short pitch from these elements alone.
Oh, wait, here is another remarkable coincidence: you already have. It’s called your hallway pitch (July 6, 9, and 10), which I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound are practicing on everyone you meet.
I’m serious about this. It takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a writer talking to other writers. When we’re in creative mode, we speak amongst ourselves about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer?
But when we’re in marketing mode, as in a formal pitch meeting, it’s time to put aside those complicated and fascinating aspects of the creative process, and talk about the book in terms the non-creative business side of the industry can understand.
How might one go about doing that in a formal pitch meeting? I’m so glad you asked. We’ve had the wind-up; now comes the pitch.
Part I: First, you would begin with the magic first hundred words:
”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”
If you can work in a flattering reference to a specific past project upon which the agent or editor has labored, even if it’s not in your genre, just after your name is a great place to do it. As in,
“Hi, my name is J.K. Rowling, and I got so excited when you said on the agents’ panel earlier that you are looking for YA books where children solve their problems without adult information! That sounds like a jacket blurb for my novel. My latest project, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is middle-grade fiction aimed at kids who feel like outsiders. See how it grabs you…”
If you are pitching nonfiction, this is the step where you will want to mention your platform. For example,
“Hi, my name is Bill Clinton, and I used to be President of the United States. I write political books, buidling upon that expertise. My latest project…”
Part II: After you finish Part I, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into an extended version of your elevator speech, one that introduces the protagonist, shows the essential conflict, and gives a sense of the dramatic arc.
“(Protagonist) is in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.
Do NOT tell the entire plot: your goal here, remember, is to get your hearer to ask to read the book you’re pitching, not to convey the plot in such detail that your hearer feels he’s already read it.
Make sure to identify your protagonist — by name, never as “my protagonist” — in the first line. It’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Introduce her as an active struggler in the conflict, rather than a passive victim of it.
(And if you don’t know why a story about a passive protagonist is usually harder to sell than one about her more active cousin, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category at right.)
Part III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell. If you have demographic information about that target market, or a comparison to a similar book released within the last five years that has sold very well, this is the time to mention it.
“I’m excited about this project, because of its SELLING POINTS. Currently, there are # (TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”
Now, you could manage all that in two minutes, right?
Of course you could: with aplomb, with dignity. Because, really, are you are doing here is talking about the work you love, telling your favorite story, in the language that agents and editors speak.
One last thing, then I shall let you run off to ponder what details you would like to append to your elevator speech: once you have gone through all of the steps above, SHUT UP and let your hearer get a word in edgewise.
Most pitchers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material. Don’t; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.
It’s in your self-interest, you know. If even you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is likely to fall flat if you don’t leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT!”
A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more.
And that, my friends, is how I like to give a pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.
Tomorrow, I shall tackle how to track down those vivid little details that will make your pitch spring to life. In the meantime, keep up the good work!