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Pitching 101, part XII: elevator speeches revisited, or, what to say when time is of the essence

July 30th, 2009

dali-clocks

Clocks are not the only thing melting out here in Seattle, friends and neighbors: so are local writers. And butchers, bakers, and cabinet makers. The city’s simply not built for this type of heat.

But enough about the weather: back to the topic at hand, the care and feeding of the elevator speech, a.k.a. the 3-line pitch.

What a lot we’ve learned in the past couple of weeks, eh? We’ve talked about how to identify your book’s category (July 17 and 20), identify your target market (July 21-23), figure out what about your book is fresh (July 23), come up with a few strong selling points (July 23 and 27), develop a snappy keynote statement (July 27), and pull all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 28). All of that, my friends, will enable you to move gracefully and professionally into conversation with anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Now you’re ready to start practicing what to say after that. From here on out we’re going to be talking about what you should say after the agent of your dreams responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Why, yes, Stalwart Writer, I would like to hear more about this marvelous book of which you speak. Enlighten me further, and awe me.”

Okay, so maybe the average Manhattanite agent doesn’t speak like an extra in a production A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. (Not that anyone in my neck of the woods is dreaming much on these sticky midsummer nights. We had an impromptu block party at 3 am, just because no one could sleep.) The fact remains, if you’ve been following this series and doing your homework, you already have something prepared for that precious moment when someone in the industry turns to you and asks that question so dreaded by aspiring writers, “So, what do you write?”

Now, we’re preparing for that even more fruitful moment when an agent sighs, glances longingly at the pasta bar just a few feet ahead of her, and says, “Yeah, sure, intrepid writer who has just accosted me, you may have 30 seconds of my time.”

Perhaps it’s self-evident, but moments like this were just made for the elevator speech.

For those of you joining us late in the series, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book, couched in the present tense. As we discussed last time, it is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) by name and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

If the idea of constructing an elevator speech makes you shake in your proverbial boots, I have some good news for you: you probably already have a fair amount of experience doing it.

How so, you cry, and wherefore? Well, such a description is typically the second paragraph of a classically-constructed query letter. That, too, may well be self-evident — a pitch is, after all, more or less a verbal query letter. (If anything I’ve said in this paragraph is a major surprise to you, I would strongly advise checking out the mysteriously-titled HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

Not entirely surprisingly, then, query letters and elevator speeches often share focus problems. All too often, for instance, the constructors of both will go off on tangents, detailing how difficult it is to find an agent or boasting about how this is the best book ever written. Or how it’s a natural for Oprah.

And like the descriptive paragraph of a query letter, elevator speeches all too often get bogged down in plot details. But summarization is not what’s required, in either instance — and if more aspiring writers realized that, people on both ends of the querying and pitching processes would be significantly happier.

Do I hear some of you out there moaning, or are you merely thinking dissent very loudly indeed? “But Anne,” disgruntled pitch- and query-constructors the world over protest, “I spent MONTHS over my query letter, and I never managed to trim the descriptive part to under two-thirds of a page! How do you expect me to be able to make my book sound fascinating in half that many words, and out loud?”

In a word: strategy. To be followed shortly by a second word, as well as a third and a fourth: practice, practice, and practice.

You can feel a step-by-step list coming on, can’t you? Here goes.

(1) Don’t panic or berate yourself about not coming up with a great pitch the first time you sit down to do it.
Oh, you may laugh, but these are the two most common responses amongst most would-be pitchers confronted with the task of writing a 3-line pitch. That’s not a particularly rational response: contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact of having written a good book does not magically endow one with the skills necessary to construct a 3-line pitch.

Like querying, pitching is a learned skill; nobody is born knowing how to do it. So calm down and learn the skills before you start to judge yourself.

Feeling better? Good. Let’s move on to step 2.

(2) Sit down and write a straightforward description of the central conflict or argument of your book.
I’m not talking about summarizing the plot here, mind you, but the answer to a very simple, albeit multi-part, question:

a) Who is your protagonist?

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?

c) What’s standing in the way of getting it?

Easier to think of summing things up when you limit the parameters that way, isn’t it? It also works for memoir:

a) Who is the narrator of this book?

b) What does s/he want more than anything else?

c) What’s standing in the way of getting it?

Got that firmly in hand? Excellent. Now let’s mop our perspiring brows and proceed to the next step.

(3) Replace generalities with specifics.
Be specific about who your protagonist(s) is (are) and what’s happening to him/her/it/them. Nothing makes a pitch hearer’s eyes glaze over faster than a spate of generalities that might apply to the nearest 100,000 people.

Besides, a generalized description usually isn’t even accurate, at least on a philosophical level. In a novel or memoir, events do not happen to people in general: they happen to a specific person or group of people with individual quirks. Give a taste of that.

I know it’s hard in such a short speech, but believe me, a single memorable character trait or situational twist is worth paragraphs and paragraphs of generalities.

Have you obliterated summary and gotten concrete? Great. Now let’s work on making your elevator speech sound original.

(4) Emphasize what is fresh about your story, not its similarities to other books.
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a pitcher say, “It’s just like BESTSELLER X, but with Twist Y,” I would build a rock-candy mountain just south of Winnipeg and invite all the children in Canada to feast for a month and a half. It’s just not very efficient use of brief elevator speech time; the keynote is a better place to draw such parallels, if you feel you must.

Why isn’t it efficient? Because the elevator speech is NOT about indicating genre or book category — which, to someone in the industry, is precisely what citing an earlier successful book in your chosen book category achieves — but once you’ve told an agent or editor what your book category is, getting specific about a similar book is actually a trifle redundant.

It also makes your book seem less original, at least at the elevator speech stage — here is where you need to wow your hearers with the uniqueness of your premise, your protagonist, and your approach. Making your book sound like a rehash of a well-worn concept is not usually the best way to accomplish that.

All freshened up? Fabulous. Let’s sharpen our critical eyes still further.

(5) Try not to bottom-line the plot — and definitely avoid clichés.
That advice about cliché-hunting doesn’t just apply to hackneyed concepts: well-worn phrases are notorious pitch-killers, too. Bear in mind that someone who hears pitches for a living may have a stronger sense of what’s a cliché than does the population at large. While a romance-reader may not exclaim, “Oh, no, not another heroine with long, flowing red hair!”, an agent or editor who routinely handles romance might.

So fine-tune your phraseology. Steer clear of sweeping statements on the order of, “…and in the process, he learned to be a better axe murderer — and a better human being.” Or “Their struggles brought them closer together as a couple AND won her the election.”

Or, heaven preserve us, “Can they learn to live happily ever after?”

Remember, you’re trying to convince the hearer that you can write; echoing the latest catchphrase — or one that’s been floating around the zeitgeist for forty years — is generally not the best way to achieve that. Writers often incorporate the sort of terminology used to promote TV shows and movies — but in an elevator speech (or a query letter — or a pitch, for that matter), the last reaction a writer wants to evoke is, “Gee, this sounds like the movie-of-the-week I saw last night.”

Translation: this technique doesn’t show off your creativity as a plot-deviser, any more than the use of clichés would display your talent for unique phraseology. You want to make your story sound original and fresh, right?

Is your draft now free of time-worn concepts and wording? Marvelous. Now comes the hard part.

(6) Enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one strong, MEMORABLE image.

Create a mental picture that your hearer will recall after you walk away, business card and request for the first fifty pages clutched firmly to your heaving bosom. Ideally, this image should be something that the hearer (or our old pal Millicent, the agency screener) has never heard before.

And it needn’t be a visual detail, either: the other senses tend to be seriously under-utilized in elevator speeches. Just makes sure it sticks in the mind.

Yes, in 3-4 sentences. You’re a writer: making prose interesting is what you DO, right?

Have you come up with an original image, vividly described? Tremendous. Now let’s make your plot sound fascinating.

(7) Present your protagonist as the primary actor in the plot, not as the object of the action.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”

Stop laughing — you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations. If I had a penny for each of THOSE I’ve heard, I’d build THREE of those rock-candy mountains, one in each of the NAFTA nations, for the delight of local children.

The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.

There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.

I’m serious about this. This is recognized code; take advantage of it.

Does your protagonist come across as passionately engaged in the struggle to pursue her dream, embrace her fate, and assure her happiness. Pat yourself on the back. Time to talk about voice.

(8) Make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book.
You’d be astonished — at least I hope you would — at how often this basic, common-sense principle is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious.

While that tone is usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book, the practice tends to undersells the book.

Particularly if the tone happens to be one of the manuscript’s primary selling points. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.

(9) Try saying the result out loud to someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how she/he/the lamp responds.
The lamp is a suggestion for those of you too shy to buttonhole a co-worker or that guy sitting next to you at Starbucks, but my point is, you can’t know how a pitch is going to sound out loud until you say it out loud.

I’m not merely talking about coherence here — I’m also thinking of practicalities like breath control. Is it possible to speak your three-line speech in three breaths, for instance? If not, you’re not going to be able to get through your elevator speech within 30 seconds without fainting.

Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it happen. Writers just keel over sideways because they forget to breathe.

Remember not to lock your knees. Oh, and write a 3-line pitch that’s possible to say without turning blue.

Be on the look-out, too, for words that are hard to say — or are hard to say together. Tongue-twisters and rhymes may seem cute on the page, but trust me, you’re not going to want to say, “Tina Tweezedale tried tremendously to tie Trevor up with twine.”

Also, if you’re not ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE how to pronounce a word, look it up. Ditto if you aren’t sure that you’re using it correctly. Writers often read words that they’ve never heard spoken aloud; do you really want the agent to whom you’re pitching to correct your pronunciation of solipsistic, or to tell you that you didn’t actually mean that your protagonist implied something, but that he inferred it?

Check. Double-check. And if you’re still not certain, track down the best-read person you know and ask her to hear your pitch. And to define solipsistic, while she’s at it.

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “Okay, Anne,” I hear some perplexed souls say, “I get why I might want to make sure that I can say my entire elevator speech out loud correctly. But if I’m sure that I can, why do I need to say it to — ugh — another living, breathing human being?”

For a couple of very good reasons, oh shy brow-knitters. First, you’re going to have to say it out loud sometime; it’s literally impossible to give a verbal pitch silently. All saving your elevator speech for the great moment when you are face-to-face with the agent of your dreams actually achieves is depriving you of the opportunity to practice.

Or, to put it less obliquely: if your elevator speech doesn’t make sense aloud, would you rather find that out in the midst of giving the pitch, or before, when you can fix it?

I thought as much. Second, if you’ve never pitched before, saying your 3-line pitch is going to sound ridiculous to you the first few times you do it. Again, would you rather feel silly while you’re pitching, or before?

Third — and this is the most important — if you practice on a reasonably intelligent hearer, you can ask a vitally important follow-up question: “Would you mind telling the story back to me?”

If s/he can’t, you might want to take another gander at your elevator speech: chances are, it’s not particularly memorable.

I’m itching to give a few concrete examples, so you may see these rules in action, but it’s time to sign off for the day. Try to avoid heat prostration, Seattleites, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XI: just in case any of you should need it this weekend, the three-line pitch! How’s this for a premise: this writer and this agent walk into an elevator…

July 29th, 2009

In deference to all of the aspiring writers in my neck of the woods are going to be spending this evening nervously gnawing their nails in anticipation of pitching at the Conference That Shall Remain Nameless, I’m going to keep it relatively short today — and that’s not even the only favor I intend to do them. The CTSRN is, like so many large conferences, prone to advising — nay, ordering — attendees to adhere to the out-of-date and never-particularly-publishing-friendly practice of limiting their pitches to three lines only. While I believe in principle and know from experience that this strategy does not work especially well in practice — even at the CTSRN, agents and editors tend to expect writers to be able to have actual conversations about their work, not merely to cough up a few rigidly memorized lines — I’m also aware that sometimes, conference brochure rhetoric can scare prospective pitchers into conniption fits.

So today, I’m going to do something that I’ve never done before: I’m going to humor the organizers of the CTSRN and similar conferences; I’m going to be talking about the construction and use of the 3-line pitch.

Which is to say: I’m going to be talking about the darned thing in a context in which it might actually prove useful to the average conference-goer, as a 3-sentence elevator speech. Which is, you may be pleased to hear, is equally useful at conferences and in query letters.

Were you expecting me to follow that last statement with not at all? I can see where you might leap to that conclusion: I have, after all, spent the last couple of weeks telling you at great length that 3-sentence speeches are vastly overrated as marketing tools for books.

Which they are, in most pitching contexts. Sometimes, though, they are indeed useful; I’ll be showing you when and how over the next couple of days. So I would, contrary to what you may have been expecting, advise you to construct one prior to conference time. It’s just not going to be the primary pitching tool in your writer’s bag.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a definition of the three-line pitch, or, as I prefer to call it, the elevator speech.

Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. A longish paragraph, in other words. If the book is a novel, the elevator speech should be IN THE PRESENT TENSE and IN THE THIRD PERSON, regardless of the tense and narrative voice in which the book is actually written.

Contrary to popular belief, the elevator speech should NOT be a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) BY NAME and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.

Yes, you read that correctly: the 3-sentence pitch you’ve been hearing so much about in conference circles lately is NOT a standard pitch for a book. It isn’t intended to replace the fully-realized 2-minute pitch that agents and editors will expect you to deliver within the context of a formal appointment.

Like the keynote, the 3-line pitch not a substitute for a pitch proper, but a teaser for it — it’s the lead-in to the actual pitch, a chance to show off your storytelling talent in the 30 seconds you might realistically have with an agent in a hallway.

Thus the term elevator speech: it’s designed to be short enough to deliver between floors when a happy accident places you and the agent of your dreams together in the same lift. (And yes, I DO actually know writers who have given their elevator speeches to agents in elevators, appropriately enough.) Although often, an agent in a hurry — say, one you have caught immediately after he has taught a class, or on his way into lunch — will not wait to hear the 2-minute version before asking to see pages.

Which is the true mark of success for an elevator speech: it so intrigues the hearer that further pitching is rendered unnecessary.

But — and I cannot emphasize this enough — contrary to what the vast majority of pitching classes and conference brochures will tell you, the elevator speech does not work in every context: it should be reserved for informal pitching opportunities. And even then, you should always, ALWAYS ask politely if it’s okay to pitch before saying it.

For a formal pitching session, you will be better off with a 2-minute formal pitch. (And don’t worry, I’ll be getting to that next week.)

Confused? You’re far from alone. “Wait just a minute,” I hear some eager pitchers out there cry. “You’re telling me to do twice the work I would normally need to do! The conference brochure I have in my hand tells me that I MUST give a 3-4 sentence summary of my book. Obviously, then, I can just stick with that, and ignore your advice to prepare a 2-minute pitch as well. Besides, won’t agents and editors get mad at me if I break the 3-sentence rule?”

In a word, no — at least, not in a scheduled pitch meeting. That’s a rule set up by conference organizers, generally speaking; the 3-sentence pitch is not the standard of the publishing industry, but the MOVIE industry.

And even at conferences where organizers are most adamant about it, it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s not as though goons with stopwatches will be standing behind you during your pitch appointments, shouting, “Okay — that was 3.5 sentences, buddy. Out of the pool!”

Oh, sure, if you went on for two or three minutes during a chance encounter over the dessert bar, the average agent’s plate of tiramisu might start to shake with annoyance after a minute or so. But that’s a matter of context and fallen blood sugar. In the formal appointments, agents are often actually perplexed when writers stop talking after 20 seconds or so.

Because, you see, they don’t read the conference brochures. They just know the norms of the industry.

But think about it: do you really want to waste the other 9 1/2 minutes of your appointment by having prepared only 30 seconds about your book? On the other hand, you don’t want to focus so much on the 2-minute formal pitch that you can’t take advantage of hallway pitching opportunities, do you?

In short, you’re going to want to prepare both. This is an industry that values flexibility and creativity, after all.

Did that gusty collective sigh I just heard mean that I’ve convinced at least a few of you? “Okay, Anne,” some of you shout wearily, “You win. But since brevity is the soul of both the elevator speech and the keynote, how are they different?”

Good question, tuckered-out would-be pitchers. The elevator speech is roughly three times the length of the keynote, for one thing. And while the keynote is designed to pique interest in the conflict, the elevator speech is intended to elicit a response of, “Gee, that sounds like a fascinating story — I want to hear more.”

That’s right: it’s intended to provoke follow-up questions.

Although the purpose of both the keynote and the 3-line pitch is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. In the elevator speech, however, your task is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation.

Let me repeat that, slightly twisted, because it’s important: if your elevator speech does NOT present your novel or memoir’s protagonist as a fascinating person caught in a scintillating dilemma, or at any rate shown against an absorbing backdrop, you should revise it until it does.

Your elevator speech should, in other words, establish book’s premise, main character, and primary conflict.. It should answer the basic questions:

(1) Who is the protagonist?

(2) What is the problem s/he faces?

(3) How is s/he going to attack it differently than anybody else on the face of the earth?

Why stick to the premise alone, you ask? Simple: when you have someone’s attention for only thirty seconds or so, you don’t have time to explain the interesting backstory, the macabre subplot, how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, that great twist about the long-lost half-sister, or how the villain gets dissolved in a vat of acid in the basement.

You will not, in short, have the time to summarize the plot. You will have only just enough to identify the two or three primary elements and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you might resolve them in the book.

Was that giant slide-whistle I just heard the sound of all of you who have experienced the horror of trying to cram an entire book’s plot into three sentences realizing that you didn’t need to do it at all?

Yup. I wish someone had told me that before the first time I pitched, too.

Out comes the broken record again: an elevator speech should not be a summary. Actually, even in a screenplay pitch (which is where the 3-sentence format comes from, in case you’re curious), the writer is not expected to summarize the entire plot that quickly, merely the premise.

To tell you the truth, the only people I have ever met who have expected writers to tell an entire story in three lines are pitching teachers and the conference organizers who write the directions in brochures.

So why is the demand that you limit yourself to three sentences so ubiquitous in conference literature? Beats me. And what makes this phenomenon even stranger, at least from my perspective, is even screenplays are not really pitched in three sentences; they’re pitched in three beats. So what book writers are being told to do is not even accurate for the industry in which micro-pitches ARE the norm!

Curious about what three beats might sound like? I’m no screenwriter (nor do I play one on TV), but let me give it a try for one of the longest movies of my lifetime:

Beat one: An East Indian lawyer in South Africa

Beat two: uses nonviolence to change unjust laws

Beat three: and then takes the strategy home to fight British rule.

Recognize it? It’s GANDHI. (In case you think I’m kidding about the expected brevity of movie pitches, here is the IMDb version: “Biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British through his philosophy of non-violent protest.” Mine’s shorter.)

Of course, far more happens in the movie than this: it’s 188 minutes long, and it has a cast of — well, if not thousands, at least many hundreds filmed repeatedly. But if I had tried to summarize the entire plot, we would have been here until next Thursday.

Fortunately, an elevator speech for a book is not expected to be this terse: you actually can have 3-4 complex sentences, not just beats. But that does not mean, as is VERY common in the ostensibly 3-sentence pitches one actually hears at conferences in these dark days, three sentences with eight dependent and three independent clauses each.

We’re not talking a page here; we’re talking a paragraph.

Seriously, I’ve heard many elevator speeches that — while technically three sentences in the sense that they contained only three periods — took longer than two minutes to say. While that may meet the letter of the 3-sentence rule, it clearly violates its spirit.

Stop glaring at me. I don’t make the rules; I merely explain them to you fine people.

So while I’m at it, allow me to clear up another common misconception about the 3-line pitch: the point in keeping it brief is TO KEEP IT BRIEF, not to play rules lawyer. If you can’t say your entire elevator speech within two regular breaths, it’s too long.

Are you wondering how you’re going to accomplish this? Are you contemplating taking up fancy yogi breathing techniques to extend the length of your elevator speech? Are you, in fact, seriously considering avoiding hallway pitches altogether, just so you don’t have to construct both an elevator speech AND a 2-minute pitch?

All three are common reactions to meeting me, I must confess, but don’t worry — I shall give you many, many practical tips on how to pull it off with aplomb, but for now, I’m going to let those of you who are attending the CTSRN get back to your frantic pre-conference preparations.

For those of you who have not attended before, you might want to channel some of that anticipatory energy you’ve been devoting to nail-biting to taking a gander at the reader-requested WHAT TO WEAR TO A CONFERENCE and WHAT TO BRING TO A CONFERENCE categories on the archive list at right. Also, if you love me, please do not even consider sending off any requested materials to any agents and editors you might meet at said conference without at least glancing at the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET posts.

And is it too late to advise you to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it to anyone?

For the rest of you, I leave to ponder the possibilities until next time. That way, you can brainstorm unfettered. But do brainstorm about the best way to present your premise BRIEFLY, not how to cram as much information as possible into a couple of breaths’ worth of speech.

To give you a touch of additional incentive, I’ll let you in on a secret: once you have come up with an eyebrow-raising elevator speech, the process is going to help you improve your 2-minute pitch — and your queries, too. Trust me on this one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Give it some thought, and keep up the good work!

PS: for those of you who are too worried about what you’ve heard about hallway pitching to get a good night’s sleep before I cover how to approach an agent outside the context of a pre-arranged pitch meeting, sharp-eyed reader Penelope has anticipated your fears: our recent exchange in the comments might help set your minds at rest.

Pitching 101, part X: becoming fluent in conference-speak, or, walking into the lion’s cage sans whip and chair

July 28th, 2009

Why feel like this at a conference...

Why feel like this at a conference...

...when you could feel like this?

...when you could feel like this?


Welcome back to my ongoing series on the philosophy, strategy, and construction of an effective verbal pitch. I know that I may be covering this material in rather too great depth for those of you eyeing upcoming conference dates circled in red with PITCH HERE! written on your calendars — so for those of you wondering whether I’m going to be wrapping this all up by, say, this coming weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named (they don’t need the free publicity), the short answer is no.

The long answer is that if you’re in that much of a hurry, please run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page. Feel free to leave comments on the current posts if you have questions — believe me, I would much, much rather that you asked me to clarify things before you pitched than to hear afterward that you wished mid-pitch that you’d asked a trenchant question or two.

For those of you feeling a little less rushed, please sit back and enjoy learning how to approach pitching not as a one-time blurt of a short memorized paragraph, but as a helpful, civil conversation with an agent or editor about your book.

Lest that still seem like a far-away goal, take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for how much better prepared for that conversation you are now than you were a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve been following this series faithfully and doing your homework, you have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. (You’ve constructed several of the constituent parts of a good query letter, too, but I’ll come back to that after I’ve run all the way through the pitching cycle.)

Seriously, we’ve come a long way, babies: you’re already far more prepared to market your work than 90% of the writers who slink into pitch meetings.

Think about it: by now, you have faced some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching (July 14-16), determined your book’s category (July 17 and 20), identified your target market and figured out how to describe it to folks in the industry (July 21-23), figured out what about it is fresh (July 23), come up with a few strong selling points (July 23 and 27), and developed a snappy keynote statement (July 27).

To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.

Impossible, you say? Read on.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already constructed together into the first hundred words you say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference. With these first hundred words, even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

And I do mean ANYONE, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, a writer who is sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.

Nifty trick, eh? And a darned useful one, in my humble opinion: no matter what you’ve heard, it’s darned hard to land an agent via a pitch unless you can talk fluently about your book.

As in during an actual conversation, not in a few memorized lines.

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about my own tendency toward iconoclastism: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching has made it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy and the complex-minded, in addition to tending to sidestep the question that agents and editors most need to know about a brand-new writer: not can she speak, but can she write?

However, as long as aspiring writers in North America are were stuck with pitching and querying as our primary means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

For that reason — and I warn you, conference organizers tend to dislike my expressing it this way — I believe that encouraging writers to think that those three sentences are all that is needed to sell a book is short-sighted, inaccurate, and is an almost sure-fire recipe for ending up feeling tongue-tied and helpless in a pitching situation. I’m not convinced that all pitching disasters are, as conference organizers often imply, the result of writers who simply don’t prepare adequately; in my experience, flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.

No, really — I’m quite serious about that last one. Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. Not just because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books.

Which left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

This species of brain freeze happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. Frequently, these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they walk out of the pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

Leaving the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated, as you may well imagine. The results, I’m afraid, are relatively predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to put talented writers in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, as we will be discussing later in this series — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned BEFORE those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows who you are and what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I’ve never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say BEFORE a pitch.

The fact is, simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man.”

That’s a screenplay-type pitch for TOOTSIE, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.

Don’t tell me that you don’t have time for manners: presenting yourself politely, as a reasonable person should, requires only about a hundred words. Even in the swiftest pitching situation, you will have the ten seconds to utter a hundred words. Even writers who limit their pitches to three lines have time for that.

The goal of my first hundred words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with these magic words, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Now doesn’t that sound more civilized than walking into a pitch meeting with a whip and a chair, terrified and desiring only to keep criticism at bay?

While mastering my formula for the magic first hundred words will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same, it will go a long way toward helping you calm down enough to give an effective pitch. Ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease; observing the niceties is conducive to that.

And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations where a writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.

Ready to learn how to introduce yourself gracefully? Relax — it’s going to be easy:

”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).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

You’re welcome.

The beauty of the first hundred words formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn them by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance meeting at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — confident that you can comport yourself with ease and grace.

Why is so important to introduce yourself urbanely — and get to your point quickly? Well, agents and editors are (as I believe I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before) MAGNIFICENTLY busy people; they honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication.

That’s my job, right?

It’s natural to be hesitant when approaching someone who could conceivably change your life. But think about what even a brief flare-up of shyness, modesty, or just plain insecurity at the moment of approach can look like from their perspective. By the time the average pitcher has gotten around to mentioning her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of her has usually already mentally stamped her foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.

Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, her book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than just good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, she might not get to pitch at all.

By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, they will appreciate it.

I’ve pushed a few insecurity buttons out there, haven’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of the more modest amongst you protest, “I DON’T know much about how publishing works. They’ll see through my false mask of confidence right away. And look — that agent has a knife! AHHHHHH!” (Sound of talented body thudding onto the ground.)

Would this be a good time to point out that the vast majority of aspiring writers radically overestimate how scary interacting with an agent or editor will be, building it up in their minds until it can seem downright life-threatening? Which is, of course, ridiculous: in my experience, very few agents come to conferences armed.

In their natural habitat, they will only attack writers if provoked, wounded, or very, very hungry.

Seriously, writers tend to freak themselves out unnecessarily with fantasies about agents and editors being mean to them, but that’s hardly the universal pitching experience. Most conference-attending agents and editors genuinely like good writing and good writers; apart from a few sadists who get their jollies bullying the innocent, they’re not there to pick fights.

Or, to put it a bit more poetically: when an agent or editor agrees to hear a writer’s pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, he’s virtually never trying to trick an aspiring writer into making a career-destroying mistake. They come to these conferences to find talent.

They want to like you, honest. But they will like you better if you meet them halfway.

Worried? Can’t say as I blame you, but I suspect it might set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings. Assuming that we all know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at two other common entrance speeches:

”There’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together, so it’s a problem. After a while, something happens to lock them in an elevator together, where they discover that they’ve actually been yearning after each other for years.”

Vague, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? And, lest we forget, who is saying this, beyond the person who happened to be assigned to the 10:45 pitching slot?

See the problem, from the agent or editor’s point of view? Good. Now let’s look at another popular entrance strategy:

”Well, my book isn’t really finished, and you’re probably not going to be interested in it, but I’ve been working on it for eight years and I keep getting rejected, so maybe…well, in any case, here goes: there’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together…”

Doesn’t exactly ooze confidence, does it?

With those querying faux pas firmly embedded in your brainpans, let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far your approach is likely to try their patience. You’ve just walked into your pitch appointment and said:

”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).”

Believe me, to an agent or editor who has been listening to writers stammer helplessly all day, this simple speech will be downright refreshing. Quite apart from the content conveying what they actually want to KNOW — again, something of a rarity in a three-line pitch — the magic first hundred words also say:

”Hi, I’m a polite and professional writer who has taken the time to learn how you and your ilk describe books. I understand that in order to make a living, you need to be able to pitch good books to others, so I have been considerate enough to figure out both the BOOK CATEGORY and TARGET MARKET. Rather than assuming that you have no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you: (KEYNOTE).”

That’s perfectly honest, right? Over the past couple of weeks, you HAVE done all these things, haven’t you?

Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your smoothly, without an initial pause — you know, like a conversation. Only repetition will make them feel like natural speech.

And don’t just say them in your mind: practice OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself talk about your work like a professional.

Which is a perfectly lovely reason not to save the magic first hundred words for the important folks at a conference, but to use them to introduce yourself to the writer standing ahead of you in the registration line. And the one behind you, as well as the people sitting around you at the first seminar on the first day. In fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that any writers’ conference anywhere in the world will be stuffed to capacity with people upon whom to practice this speech.

Knock yourself out. You might make a few friends.

One caveat about using these words to meet other writers at a conference: they’re a great introduction, but do give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what HE writes before you start going on at too great length about your own work.

Courtesy counts, remember?

So if you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer, without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what the other writer writes. In this context, the very brevity of the first 100 words will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, he will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this, because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. It’s not at all unusual for a writer to realize with a shock that he’s been talking non-stop for twenty minutes.

Completely understandable, of course. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard. Ours is one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage, after all.

It can be very lonely — which is precisely why you’re going to want to use the magic first hundred words to introduce yourself to as many kindred souls as you possibly can at a conference. What better place to meet buddies to e-mail when you feel yourself starting to lose momentum? Where else are you more likely to find talented people eager to form a critique group?

Not to mention the distinct possibility that some of those people sitting next to you in seminars are going to be household names someday.

This is, in fact, an excellent place for a writer to find new friends who GET what it’s like to be a writer. And at that, let no one sneeze, at lest not in my general vicinity.

Let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re DOING for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So, finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out.

(Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people free copies of your future books: nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra copies to fulfill all those vague past promises, do you?)

Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even at a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually WANTS to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!”

Well, let’s just say it’s easy to get carried away.

For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk. For your conversational convenience, the magic first hundred words transform readily into questions about what concerns writers:

”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? Who is your target audience? What’s your premise?

Sensing a theme here?

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to get used to speaking your first hundred words — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers working in your genre. Most writers are genuinely nice people — and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you knew a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Trust me on this one: you won’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes; you will want to have those numbers on speed-dial.

Practice, practice, practice those first hundred words, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They’re going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech (that’s those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about), so do plan to take some time off from barbequing and watching fireworks to join us here.

After that, we’ll be ready for the home stretch: pulling it all together for the pitch proper. Can the query letter be far behind?

Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made over the last couple of weeks. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part IX: getting all conceptual, or, Anne Frank meets Godzilla at the Eiffel Tower and love blooms!

July 27th, 2009

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Did you enjoy your weekend, readers, or were you too busy racking your brains, trying to come up with a list of your book’s selling points? Here in Seattle, where a writers’ organization to which I used to donate a tremendous amount of time is gearing up for its annual Conference That Shall Remain Nameless, aspiring writers are walking into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of the brighter wits among you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I eschew this approach. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last Thursday with some homework. So I ask again: how is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are marketed to readers.

Don’t try this at your local library — the idea is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

I don’t mean to alarm any of you with my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books aimed at a specific group of readers, you may well notice that they all have something in common. In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words.

That’s not only true of book marketing, by the way. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) Since I was new to the game, I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine, in the apparently mistaken impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like.

After a week or two, the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be — and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots, to assure an accurate description?

He waved away my objection. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic holds true for the language of a pitch or a query letter: since agents and editors think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book. An overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what they’re hoping to hear.

So let’s turn our attention to pith, shall we? Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. But I digress)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted agency screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be READY to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

Here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly ARE going to take up only a few seconds of her time. (Hey, you didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

But there I go, digressing again. Back to the business at hand.

The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript.

Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift single sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more. Just in case anyone is still confused, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print — the keynote is designed to help open doors, not to serve as a substitute for the pitch.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at literally every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here. The point is that the keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the entire pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Note: the Hollywood Hook should not be confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms confused all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

“It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY!”

It’s JAWS, but on dry land and with turtledoves!

“Paris Hilton is suddenly penniless and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day Martians invade!”

It’s no accident that the example above ends in an exclamation point: you WANT your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood Hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise?

The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey.

Use the Force, Luke!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from last week: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book solves vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood Hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue.

Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch. So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand WHY that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to page-long descriptions pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?

That’s a great question, disgruntled murmurers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

If you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound conflict-ridden.

How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book were to soothe. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights?” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

You WERE aware that both pitching and querying were species of seduction, right?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing artistic work that you’re going to find. Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before.

Another effective method for a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution. This works especially well for NF books on depressing subjects.

A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and here’s what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a couple of years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounds like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. These things happen.

My point is, if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbor an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believe they can sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, heavy subject matter tends to be harder to sell, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and ABSOLUTELY original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is UNIQUE, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, all the better.

Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your BOOK memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to make them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. Logically, neither could be true.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: if a pitcher is extremely rude to the pitchee, the latter usually won’t ask to see pages. But logically, no assessment of a VERBAL pitch could possibly be construed as a MANUSCRIPT critique.

In other words, they can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose, and while I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good delivery is not the same thing as book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that STILL haunts my nightmares. A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked in and read, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. To make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me, lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, almost a decade later, everyone there remembers his performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who read an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if someone ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they tend to be merely about delivery, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you’re the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at him already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Onion loaf, OCD, and other indispensable accoutrements of the comedy writer: an interview with AND HERE’S THE KICKER author Mike Sacks

July 24th, 2009

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Hello, campers –

Since we’ve all been working so hard throughout this series on pitching, I have a treat for you today — or at any rate, I had planned a treat: an interview between Mike Sacks, author of the recently-released AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT and legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe.

I was excited about this, because the book is a good one, full of the kind of serious analysis the craft of comedy writing seldom receives, performed by writers who have spent years honing their craft.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was even more excited, because quite a lot of the interviews speak very directly to our pet subject of the moment: AND HERE’S THE KICKER contains some amazing anecdotes about the difficulty of pitching comedy to the humorless — or to funny people who are just bad listeners.

Who among us couldn’t use some advice from the pros on that?

To render it even more useful for those of you out there who write comedy, the interviews are bookended with sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

You’re starting to feel the excitement now, too, aren’t you?

Seriously, ever since I’ve had the book in the house, I’ve been picking it up every time I start to feel even the vaguest twinge of depression. Nothing cheers me up like learning something new about my art form, you see — and frankly, I’ve been pretty astonished at how much solid information about craft and marketing is crammed into these relatively brief interviews.

We often hear super-serious authors discussing the inspiration and difficulties underlying their craft, but comedy writing is usually treated like magic: all the audience really knows is whether the bit works. How it is done remains a mystery. Here, however, the pros actually do talk about the tricks o’ the trade, sometimes in quite extensive detail.

How much detail, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s always a good sign, I think, when I pick up a book aimed at aspiring writers and exclaim ten pages in, “Wow, why hasn’t someone written this before?”

I have to admit, though, that as a reader, much of what I’ve enjoyed about AND HERE’S THE KICKER has had little to do with insights into craft or illuminating marketing tips. I’ve been getting a big kick out of some of the behind-the-scenes peeks into pitch sessions and writers’ meetings.

Who’d have thought, for instance, that the catchphrase-based humor that took over skits at Saturday Night Live would annoy some former SNL writers as much as it does yours truly? (Catchphrases are antithetical to genuine humor, in my opinion: the laugh comes merely because the line is expected.) Or that an actor/director/writer whose work I’ve always felt was hugely overrated would strike me as similarly full of himself in the context of a serious interview about the far, far more talented artists with whom he’s had the good fortune to work?

Hey, I’m only human; I enjoy having my prejudices confirmed as much as the next person.

In short, I was pretty psyched at the prospect of bringing Mike here to Author! Author! to talk about his book. So, as I always do when I’m considering introducing an author of a new book to you fine people, I tracked down the publisher’s blurb:

Every great joke has a punch line, and every great humor writer has an arsenal of experiences, anecdotes, and obsessions that were the inspiration for that humor. In fact, those who make a career out of entertaining strangers with words are a notoriously intelligent and quirky lot. And boy, do they have some stories.

In this entertaining and inspirational book, you’ll hear from 21 top humor writers as they discuss the comedy-writing process, their influences, their likes and dislikes, and their experiences in the industry. You’ll also learn some less useful but equally amusing things, such as:

* How screenwriter Buck Henry came up with the famous “plastics” line for The Graduate.
* How many times the cops were called on co-writers Sacha Baron Cohen and Dan Mazer during the shooting of Borat.
* What David Sedaris thinks of his critics.
* What creator Paul Feig thinks would have happened to the Freaks & Geeks crew if the show had had another season.
* What Jack Handey considers his favorite “Deep Thoughts.”
* How Todd Hanson and the staff of The Onion managed to face the aftermath of 9/11 with the perfect dose of humor.
* How Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais created the original version of The Office.
* What it’s really like in the writers’ room at SNL.

Funny and informative, And Here’s the Kicker is a must-have resource – whether you’re an aspiring humor writer, a fan of the genre, or someone who just likes to laugh.

And that, my friends, is how a not-very-stirring pitch can undersell a marvelous book. Oh, it drops the relevant names well enough, but does that very mainstream list tell you that this book is filled with insights that will startle you? Or educate you as a comedy writer?

Did it, in short, stir in you excitement to rush out and read this book?

For me, it didn’t, and that’s a real shame — the interviews with Bob Odenkirk and Dick Cavett alone offer more genuine insight into figuring out what is and isn’t going to be funny to an audience than anything else I’ve seen on the subject in years.

Call me zany, but when a reader already in love with a book takes a gander at the blurb and thinks, “Wow, that certainly undersells what’s between the covers,” I suspect that it might not be doing its job as well as it should.

Ditto with a pitch, whether it is given verbally or in a query letter: if it doesn’t make the hearer or reader long to read the manuscript in question, it’s not an effective pitch, by definition. As we’ve just seen, simply listing a book’s attributes — a strategy embraced by many a pitcher — isn’t always the best means of grabbing potential readers.

So eschew the blurb above, which also, I notice from the book at my elbow, happens to be the back jacket copy. I suspect that the interview below will give you greater insight into why AND HERE’S THE KICKER might be the book for you. As would flipping through it in a bookstore — which, contrary to the dire moans we keep hearing from the general direction of the publishing industry, inveterate readers still do on a regular basis.

For those of you who prefer the new-fangled, less-browsable route, AND HERE’S THE KICKER is also available on Amazon, naturally. And for those of you who like to support independent bookstores but don’t happen to live near any, you can always pick it up at Powell’s.

As for me, I’ve depressed myself into a stupor, thinking about all of the great books out there that are languishing, under-pitched. I’m just going to have to read another interview to cheer myself up.

Enjoy!

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My name is Mike Sacks. I have a new book out this month from Writers Digest Press called “And Here’s the Kicker.” The book contains full-length interviews that I conducted over the past two years with 21 famous humor writers.

One of those writers is the great Merrill Markoe, who was a huge influence not only on me, but on my entire generation. Merrill was the first head-writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and she’s also published a ton of great articles and seven fantastic humor books that every comedy fan should own.

I asked Merrill if she’d be willing to talk with me about my book, exclusively for Author! Author!, and she said yes. Last month, in a private room in the Santa Monica Outback Steakhouse, over a giant onion loaf and two orders of sweet-glazed roast pork tenderloins, we sat down to talk about various subjects, including what it really takes to become a humor writer, beyond merely depression and OCD…

Hope you enjoy…

MERRILL: Mike, did you know I was a vegetarian when I agreed to do this interview with you?

SACKS: Onion loaf is a vegetable, is it not?

MERRILL: Moving on…What did you do at the Washington Post?

SACKS: I worked in the Washington Postsyndicate office. We edited and then sent out the work of various blow-hard columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, EJ Dionne, etc. I’m from the DC area originally, but I don’t miss the bowties, lawyers in suspenders, and self-important vice-presidents of do-nothing associations.

Can you tell I didn’t fit in?

MERRILL: What do you on the editorial staff at Vanity Fair?

SACKS: Mostly what I do is editorial, although I also write for the magazine. Also, and I’m not thrilled about this, I’m in charge of Dominick Dunne’s ever-changing hairdo.

MERRILL: You’ve freelanced for various magazines, such as The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Time, Radar and Vice. Were those freelance pieces that you submitted or did you contact them and pitch?

SACKS: Most of those pieces were the result of me coming up with an idea and sending it to someone on staff, usually someone I knew.

It’s up to you to make a pitch, and (this is important) you should never send your pitch to the editor-in-chief. They just don’t care. Send it to either someone you know or someone further down the editorial ladder, who might have time to read a query and help you through the process.

I’d say that most of the younger editorial staffers prefer email. So, make your pitch very short, no longer than four paragraphs. You can always add details later.

MERRILL: What did you want to be when you grew up?

SACKS: I wanted to be a pilot and then a brain surgeon, but I got dizzy easily and I nearly flunked high school biology. No joke.

Failing that, I really wanted to work in a record store in suburban Maryland, as a clerk making $5.65 an hour . . . and I did so, off and on, for the next ten years! A dream come true!

MERRILL: Where did the idea for doing the KICKER book begin? Were there things you wanted to know about the comedy writing process, or were you just aware that there wasn’t a book like this and you wanted to read one?

SACKS: Both, really. I could never find a contemporary book of interviews with today’s humor writers. The only books I found dealt with shows from the 50s through 70s, such as Your Show of Shows or Saturday Night Live. Those programs are great, but how much can you read about them already?

Another problem with a lot of humor books is that they tend to be written by people who have not made a living in comedy (at least at the highest level). I wanted to ask successful humor writers what to do and (just as importantly) what NOT to do.

For instance, if you want to get a humor piece published in a magazine, don’t try to be funny in the cover letter. It just annoys the editor.

Here’s another bit of advice from the pros: when you apply to become a writer at a late-night show, never include with your submission the funny T-shirt you created, or bumper sticker you printed up, or Rupert Pupkin–style tape you made of yourself telling jokes in your bedroom. I’m sure you can concur. It just doesn’t help your chances.

The book is filled with such advice that will hopefully help younger writers navigate the system to becoming a success.

MERRILL: When you interviewed me, you seemed to have a lot of information about things I’d done. Did you just Google people and read or what?

SACKS: I try to read as much as possible about each of the interviewees. It shows the interview subjects that you’ve done your homework and that you respect them enough to have done the hard work of preparation. Second, and most importantly, the interview will turn out better for it. It will be more comprehensive and, most likely, a lot more interesting.

MERRILL: How long did the book take to write?

SACKS: Two years, every night after work, and on every weekend. My wife just loved it.

MERRILL: Who turned out to be the least like you thought they would be?

SACKS: Truthfully, I did so much research for each interview (up to 30 hours) that I could basically predict how it was going to go. Of course, there are exceptions to that. I conducted a total of 40 interviews and I would say that three or four subjects were either very, very busy or very, very rude.

MERRILL: Did any interview turn out so badly that you didn’t end up using it? Does that happen much with interviews?

SACKS: Yes, sometimes my fault, sometimes theirs. And sometimes you think an interview has gone beautifully, but when you begin to edit the interview and put it together, you realize that it’s kind of weak. You can then perform follow-up interviews, but sometimes you just realize that you’re never going to get what you want no matter how many questions you ask. It might just be a bad fit between you and the interviewee.

MERRILL: A lot of writers like attention because writing is so damn solitary. But were there some who were reluctant? Hard to interview?

SACKS: Sure, there were many who didn’t want to be interviewed, and most of them were (for some strange reason) women. I asked about 15 top female humor writers, and all said no (or never got back to me). I don’t know why this was the case, although I’m guessing two reasons: one, a lack of ego, and two, there are so few top women humor writers that they are constantly being asked to give interviews and are tired of it already.

Do you find this to be the case, Ms. Top Woman Humor Writer?

MERRILL: No. That doesn’t make any sense to me and certainly doesn’t sound like a typical gender trait. Or I’m such an egomaniac that I can’t recognize it. Maybe between work and home life, they were all just too busy . Or maybe their OCD was kicked off by mere proximity to you and they had to wash their hands.

Who was the hardest one to get to agree that he/she would do the interview?

SACKS: No one was really too hard to pin down, but I found that the older generation (Larry Gelbart, Al Jaffee, Irv Brecher) was the easiest to get a hold of. I think it took Larry Gelbart five minutes to get back to me by email (and not from an assistant, mind you). All these senior guys were incredibly classy. I’m sure Al Jaffee had other things to be doing, and yet he could not have been more gracious and more of a sweetheart.

Irv Brecher was 93 when I interviewed him, and he spoke to me for hours. It was one of the last interviews he conducted before he died at the age of 94.

MERRILL: You mentioned a high incidence of OCD among comedy writers. I have never been especially aware of this among writers, although comedians are so insane that I don’t know if there is any mental disabilities that they DONT have. OCD stands for Original Comedian Disorder. But what indications did you have that the people you were interviewing had OCD?

SACKS: Well, for the simple reason that I came right out and asked. And I only asked because I, too, suffer from it. I would say that 70% of those I interviewed said they had it.

I emailed Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus the mental illness factor) and asked if there was a connection. He said he wasn’t aware of one. Maybe there isn’t, I don’t know.

I just found it all to be, at the very least, a strange coincidence.

MERRILL: Seventy percent is NO coincidence.

Are you comfortable talking about your OCD in this interview? What are your symptoms and do they keep you from writing or force you to write?

SACKS: I don’t mind talking about it, as long as I can talk about it for exactly three minutes and forty seconds. My symptoms are excessive thoughts, hand washing and the urge to kiss the homeless on the subway.

I would say that the OCD does absolutely help with the writing, if only because I literally think about the writing all day and most of the night. And I feel I have to get it perfect, even though that’s an impossible trick. If I don’t write every day, I get nervous.

MERRILL: Oh my God. I definitely do that. I also do it about going to the gym. Maybe I should give hand-washing a shot and see if it takes.

On an unrelated topic: whither The Freedonian?

SACKS: The Freedonian was a humor website that I ran with some friends in the early 2000s. We published a lot of writers who went on to have great careers, like Neal Pollack and a few writers for The Daily Show.

But we got burned out, and, truthfully, it was too difficult to consistently find good pieces. We were thinking of putting the best pieces out in a book compilation…

MERRILL: When you were Nerve’s Crush of the Week, did you get a lot of interest? Didn’t your wife freak out?

SACKS: My wife couldn’t have cared less, truthfully. She thought it was ridiculous. I did hear from some women, but they mostly wanted to talk about splitting infinitives. Dirty, dirty women writers…

MERRILL: Of the writers you talked to, what advice or approach did you come away thinking about? Did anyone have a method you hadn’t considered before?

SACKS: Larry Gelbart talked about how one’s writing style is formed by what you can’t write. I thought this was really interesting, and I think it’s a good lesson for beginning writers.

In other words, if you want to write comics, write comics. If you want to write short humor pieces, that’s fine, too. You should be content writing whatever works for you and whatever interests you. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t want (or can’t) write short stories like Hemingway. Not everyone has to do that; there are plenty of other niches to fill.

MERRILL: Was there a common denominator among the writers in terms of approach to writing?

SACKS: The common denominator was to just keep working, day after day, even though the writing may not be going well. Just keep at it. Everyone, even the writers at the top of their game, struggle from time to time. The trick is to remain consistent; sit yourexpletive deleted down and keep at it, day after day, week after week, year after year.

MERRILL: Was there any one thing besides OCD that these people all had in common?

SACKS: Just this inability to feel content. All of the writers, no matter how popular or famous, still want to achieve a lot more. They each have a tremendous hunger to keep going and to keep writing and to keep achieving.

MERRILL: Did anyone actually LIKE writing?

SACKS: It seems as if the great writers have no choice BUT to write, even if they don’t necessarily love the day-to-day process. But all seem to love having accomplished something that they’re proud of, even if getting there was brutally difficult.

MERRILL: Do you have a favorite quote? I shouldn’t ask this because you will piss off all the writers you overlook, but…what the hell. You don’t have to see them now, do you?

SACKS: I liked Harold Ramis’ quote: find the smartest person in the room, and if isn’t you, go stand next to them.

I think this is great advice. Find like-minded people with similar goals who are also talented and try to make it together. It’s very important to network and to have support, rather than making a go of it alone. It’s tough enough as it is…

Thank you, Merrill. Now let’s get back to our onion loaf, shall we?

MERRILL: Do you mind if we put a napkin over the dismembered pig carcasses?

SACKS: I do not. Pass the hot sauce.

sacks-pizza-coney-island-1Mike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

Pitching 101, part VIII: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and a professional pitch for your work doesn’t hurt, either

July 23rd, 2009

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“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Welcome back to my fourth annual series on building the toolkit to construct a stellar pitch — or a brilliant query letter, for that matter. While I’m taking my time this year, walking you through the essential elements, if you happen to be in a great big hurry — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area weekend after next — feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through this process at record speed.

How do I come up with those esoteric category names?

Even if you do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever — I would strongly encourage you to work through this series as if you were. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation.

Which is, in fact, learned. As in any other business, there are ropes to learn. No shame in that.

Stop shaking your head in disbelief: pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, no matter how inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter is often rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

Onerous as it is, it truly behooves writers to start to think like marketers, at least for the few weeks immediately prior to attending a literary conference or sending out a flotilla of queries.

Okay, that’s enough justification for one day. Back to the business at hand.

Last time, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Why? Well, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book; contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s WANTING to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly — sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously these pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, these pitchers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn about why agents and editors pick up books.

Surprised? Don’t be. A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyperemotionalism.

Sadly, pitchers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the pitchers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the description), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this. Whenever I teach pitching classes, I like to ask writers about their books’ selling points before they pitch or query in order to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask this perfectly reasonable question — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query ever again.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Your job in generating selling points is to SHOW (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can practically hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference just a week or so away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. So here is a short, short answer: yes.

Before you pitch is EXACTLY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH.

Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you — and, I must say it, better than the seventeen pitchers before you who did not talk about their work in professional terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who wept for the entire ten-minute pitch meeting about how frustrating it was to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

The more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your pitch will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So let’s get back to constructing that list of selling points for your manuscript, shall we?

Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige points. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees on your list of selling points, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. We shall be going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

Let’s get cracking, shall we?

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

What you should NOT do under any circumstances, however, is stammer out in a pitch meeting (or say in a query letter) that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of fiction pitches include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter.

Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

(Perhaps it goes without mentioning, but I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.)

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:

Novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2008 search on Amazon.com revealed over 1,200 titles.

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. As we discussed earlier in the week, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:

400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage.

I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2009, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2009, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually SAYS that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

So be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a NF book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform. Some possible examples:

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
Remember a few weeks back, when I was talking about the distinction between a fresh book concept and a weird one? Well, this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. (And if you missed that discussion, you might want to check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

I like to see EVERY list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific.

Now go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Next week, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech.

But since you’ve all been working so hard, I have a treat in store for you this weekend. Be sure to tune in; it’s going to be a good one. (Hint: those of you who write comedy are going to be really, really happy.)

So prepare yourselves to get pithy, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VII: identifying why precisely the world needs YOUR book, as opposed to any other, or, how to make it plain to even a pitch-fatigued Mr. Magoo what you’re holding out to him

July 22nd, 2009

mr-magoo-in-danger

A few hours after I posted yesterday, I ran into a local author who drops by Author! Author! on a fairly regular basis. (Appropriately enough, I bumped into him in a bookstore.) “I loved your blog this morning,” he told me, chuckling. “You really made the poor souls who hear pitches sound out-of-touch with reality.” Since it has been his considered professional opinion for years that the version of reality as understood by the business side of writing and the version in which the rest of us live have little in common but a shared respect for the force of gravity, he was, he said, pretty psyched to forward the link to that post to half of the writers he knew.

Flattering, of course. Except that view of pitch-hearers had not been precisely what I’d been trying to convey yesterday.

For those of you who missed it, I devoted part of yesterday’s post to the concept of a niche market, the publishing industry’s term for a target readership that really isn’t big enough to buy significant numbers of books. Agents tend to be leery of manuscripts that they think will appeal to only a niche market, since the book sales are unlikely to yield much in the way of commission.

And lest we forget, few agencies are non-profit organizations, at least intentionally. Contrary to what far too many aspiring writers believe, the business of selling art is in fact a business, not a charitable enterprise devoted to seeking out and publishing the best writing currently on the planet. An agent or editor at a writers’ conference is looking for projects that he believes he can sell.

So when an agent dismisses a pitch with an airy, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” she’s not saying that it’s a bad idea for a book; she’s saying that it would be difficult for her to convince an editor at a major publishing house that there are very many readers out there who will spot it on a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it to the cash register.

See the difference? I hope so, because understanding that subtle distinction can often mean ending a pitch meeting on a cordial note, rather than with the writer weeping into the hallway, feeling as though he’s just been told his book concept is terrible.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, sometimes agents and editors are wrong about a book concept’s having only niche market appeal. Sometimes, that belief springs from the agent or editor’s having handled a similar project recently that flopped; sometimes, it’s a matter of not being psychic enough to know what will be the hot seller next year. But sometimes, they just aren’t aware of how many potential readers there are for a certain subject.

And sometimes, it must be said, their conceptions of these preferences are years or even decades out of date. “Soccer?” they scoff, wrinkling their collective noses. “Nobody in the United States is interested in that.

Except, of course, for the 18.2 million Americans who played soccer at least once in 1998. (Speaking of outdated statistics; it just happened to be the one I had at my fingertips, but it’s really too old to be of much use in a pitch or query letter. Do as I say, not as I do: try to stick to statistics for the last five years. )

Thus, as I pointed out last time, it’s a really, really good idea to do a bit of homework on your target demographic before walking into a pitch appointment, so you may point out — politely and preemptively — just how immense it actually is.

However, please do not fall into the same trap that my author friend did: don’t automatically assume that any agent or editor unfamiliar with your subject matter is out-of-touch or (as all too many conference-goers are apt to conclude) just not very bright. Actually, the opposite is usually true — both agencies and publishing houses tend to attract genuinely smart people.

Very smart English majors. See why they might not as a group know much about soccer? Or model train-building? Or lion-taming?

As I’ve pointed out before, no agent or editor works with every kind of book. They’re specialists, and once a writer lands a contract with them, that’s good for everybody. However, one side effect of that praiseworthy concentration on a particular type of book can be myopia.

And I’m not just talking about needing to wear glasses because they read too much, if you catch my drift.

But to be fair, let’s put that particular stripe of myopia in perspective: hands up, everyone who is an expert in a whole lot of subjects that don’t interest him. In the world outside the publishing industry, we don’t generally expect a pipelayer to be conversant with the ins and outs of oral surgery, or an oral surgeon to know much about floral arrangement, or a florist to be an expert in particle physics. Yet at conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are shocked to discover that agents and editors aren’t all that up on the subject matters of their books.

Go figure. If it makes you feel better about having to go to the trouble to prove just how many potential readers are demonstrably interested in the subject matter of your book, pretend that you are going to be pitching to an optometrist, not an agent. (Unless your book happens to be intimately concerned with the workings of the eye, that is.)

One more reason that it would behoove you to compile a few statistics before you write your pitch or query: any number in the hundreds of thousands or millions will jump out at the hearer, a serious advantage when addressing an agent or editor suffering from pitch fatigue.

Or anyone else, for that matter. After the tenth pitch, even rather dissimilar books can start to sound kind of similar.

Again, I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on the fine folks who inhabit the publishing industry: tired people in any profession tend to be rather poor listeners. Heck, many perfectly alert people are lousy listeners.

So make it as easy as possible for the pitch-fatigued (or, in the case of a query, a bleary-eyed agency screener) to see the huge market appeal of your book concept. Quantify it.

Oh, before I forget, one more tip before I move on: because anything above half a percent of the US population will translate into some pretty significant numbers, you should use the numbers, wherever possible; they will sound more impressive. More to the point, citing the numbers rather than the percentages allows for the possibility that your listener might not be up on the latest headcounts of the citizenry.

Or, to put it another way: quick, what’s the population of the US?

According to the US census’ population clock a moment ago, the answer was 306,972,221. How can you make that number work for you? Well, if you happened to be writing a ghost story, you might be thinking of bringing up in your pitch that oft-cited statistic that 1 in 3 Americans believes in ghosts. You could state it that way, or you could mention that according to that survey (which makes one wonder how the surveyors asked the question, doesn’t it?), 33% of the population might arguably be predisposed to be interested in your subject matter.

Mighty impressive, right? But to a former English major, which is likely to sound larger, a third of the population or 102.3 million people?

Now that I have you all excited about figuring out just how big your target market could be, I suppose I should throw a bucket of cold water on the proceedings by pointing out that nobody in the publishing industry will seriously believe that 102.3 million Americans will actually rush out and buy every ghost book on the market. The last time I checked, the entire Harry Potter series collectively had accounted for only 27.7 million sales in this country.

But your books should be so lucky, right?

You don’t need to argue that all of those people will buy your book — just that they are predisposed to be interested in a ghost story. Trust the intelligence of the pitch hearer to be able to conclude that if even a tiny fraction of the believers in ghosts act upon that initial interest, you could have a runaway bestseller on your hands.

I’m sensing some synapses firing out there in the ether; are those light bulbs I see appearing over my readers’ heads? “But Anne,” some of you newly-eager book marketers exclaim, “how do I get those millions of people to act upon that wholly admirable impulse and buy my book? Or, if that’s jumping the gun at this juncture, how do I convince the agent or editor to whom I pitching that my book has a genuine shot at attracting those readers?

Glad you asked, oh pitchers. Next, I am — surprise, surprise — going to talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points.

Over the next couple of days, I’m going to be asking you to work on developing a list of selling points for the book to be pitched or queried. Specifically, I’m going to ask you to prepare a page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread.

Why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs, you ask? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

In other words, so you won’t forget any of the reasons that your book will appeal to readers, even if you should happen — heaven forbid!– to have a panic attack during your pitch appointment.

Already, I can sense that some of you who have attended pitching classes are feeling a trifle skeptical about this suggestion. “Yeah, right, Anne,” these already-instructed few are scoffing, “I should put in still more effort into preparing to prepare to write my pitch. If having selling points at the ready is so darned useful, why doesn’t every pitching teacher out there advise it? Or why isn’t doesn’t that list pop up in every how-to for writing a good query letter? Isn’t this in fact just another manifestation of your overwhelming desire to have all of us over-prepare for approaching agents and editors?”

Frankly, I don’t have any idea why other pitching teachers don’t recommend this, because in my experience, it works very well as a tool for improving pretty much any pitch, query, or book proposal. In fact, I generally recommend to my proposal-writing clients that they include a bulleted list of selling points in their book proposal. True, it’s unusual to include, but both times I’ve sold nonfiction books, the editors have raved about how much they wished every proposer would include a similar page.

A really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. And whose manuscript couldn’t benefit from that?

But to be clear: a list of selling points is not something you absolutely NEED to prepare before you pitch or query, merely a really, really good idea. It’s unlikely to the point of hilarity, though, that an agent is going to look at you expectantly as soon as you walk into a pitch meeting and say, “Well? Where’s your list of selling points?” (Unless, of course, you happen to be pitching to my agent after having identified yourself as one of my blog’s readers.)

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, it is still worth constructing your list of selling points. Pulling together such a document forces you to come up with SPECIFIC reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book.

Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about that last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard NF book proposal, even.

Yet ask a fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will act insulted. Why the discrepancy? Well, as I mentioned earlier in this series, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about THIS book, as opposed to any other.

Interestingly, though, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick up a book. As a long-time pitching coach, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Not only will constructing a list help you avoid this very common pitfall — it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions.

Did that gigantic gulping sound I just heard ripping across the cosmos emit from you, dear readers? “Follow-up questions?” the timorous quaver. “You mean that in addition to gasping out a pitch, I have to have enough brain power handy to answer FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS? I always thought that the agent or editor just listened to the pitch, said yes or no, and that was that.”

Um, no — at least, not if the agent or editor likes what s/he heard you say. As in ordinary conversation, follow-up questions after a pitch are a common indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. One very, very common follow-up question, as it happens, is “Okay, why do you think this story will appeal to readers?”

Stop hyperventilating. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and by the time we finish this series, you will be prepared — nay, HAPPY — to answer it.

But you will have to prepare, I’m afraid. What most pitchers do when caught off-guard by such a question is EITHER to start making wild assertions like, “This book will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a mother!” or “Every reader of horror will find this a page-turner!” OR to hear the question as a critique of the book they’re pitching. “Oh, I guess you’re right — no one will be interested,” these poor souls mutter, backing away from the bewildered agent.

Neither course will serve you. As I mentioned the other day, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general — although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it — or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine). They also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with its not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace.

A writer’s having thought in advance about what REALISTIC claims s/he can legitimately make about why readers might like the book thus enjoys a significant advantage on the pitching floor.

In short, the selling point sheet prevents you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! There is a list of concrete facts about you and your book.

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there thinking. “What is this list, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, oh scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts.

How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market. (Hey, even the best of us are prone to last-minute qualms about our own excellence.)

2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book” section of your query letter. (If you don’t know why you might want to include this section, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right before you write your next.)

3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My memoir agent liked the one I included in my proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)

4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.

5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.

6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Okay, let’s assume that I’ve convinced you that pulling together this list is a good idea. (Just ignore the muffled screams in the background. People who can’t wait until the end of a post to register objections deserve to be gagged, don’t you find?) What might you include on it?

Well, for starters, the names of similar books that have sold well (along with some indication of why your book is different, better, and will appeal to the same demographic), your past publications, credentials, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier to market your book.

Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story (or to put it as the nonfiction agents do: what’s your platform?), and why will people want to read it?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable. For tips on how to build one from scratch, please see the aptly named BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category at right.)

Yes, list these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to the agent or editor is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning. Yes, it would be in your best interest to give some thought to this point, too. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

And if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

No need to write pages and pages of justification on each point — a single sentence on each will serve you best here. Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important.

Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of a NF platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples:

Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

In the meantime, keep brainstorming about your book’s selling points — and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VI: the dreaded niche market, or, the book market’s a banquet of possibilities, and most poor pitchers are starving to death

July 21st, 2009

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auntie-mame-dark1auntie-mameauntie-mame-negative
auntie-mame-negative2auntie-mame-pink-sepiaauntie-mame

Still hanging in there, campers? In this series, I’m expecting you to swallow a whole lot of rather unpleasant truths about marketing in great big gulps. Shall I slow down a bit today, to give your mental digestive processes time to catch up?

Hark — do I hear a chorus of small voices out there in the ether? “Heck, no, Anne!” my plucky readers chirp. “I want to learn to pitch! Bring it on, and keep it coming!”

How gratifying. Let us press on, then.

For those of you who did not shout hosannas in response, or who think that my spending so many posts on pitching is sort of a waste of time, since the vast majority of aspiring writers will never do it (specifically, the vast majority who never attend writers’ conferences or literary parties), please, for your own sakes, do not simply zone out during this series because you aren’t planning on pitching anytime soon. Learning how to give a verbal pitch well will improve your ability to write query letters and synopses — all three are built, after all, out of the same essential components, based upon a firm understanding of how the industry does and doesn’t work.

To that end, I urged you last time to embrace the industry’s practice of thinking about the target reader for your book– and why that reader really wants to read your book, rather than any other book currently on the market. I asked all of you out there — and not, as the question is usually framed, merely the nonfiction writers — to figure out why the world NEEDS your book.

I felt some of you cringing at the grandiloquence of that last statement, but please don’t be afraid to think of your little book in those terms. Doesn’t a good book leave the world a better place? Doesn’t it add to human knowledge, to human insight, to how much human beings enjoy the weary journey from cradle to grave, at least the part that occurs after they learn to read?

Feeling just a little bit better about yourself, aren’t you? Well, you should: writers are indispensable to humanity’s health, happiness, and welfare.

But that’s not the primary reason you should walk into any pitching situation having already identified your target readership. Not only is this useful information to include in your pitch (yes, yes, we’re getting to how to do it) and query letter, but it ALWAYS pays to be prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential.

Remember, your goal in preparing to pitch is not to compress the plot into a single breath’s worth of sentences, to be gasped out as quickly as possible before you fall in a dead faint at the agent’s feet: it’s to be able to present your work intelligently and professionally in a variety of promotional contexts.

(And yes, I’m aware that most conference brochures will tell you the opposite. They’re wrong, for reasons I detailed in the first couple of posts in this series.)

Let’s face it: if you’re going to be talking about your book to people you want to sell it for you, “Who is your target audience?” is not, after all, an unreasonable question for them to ask. Telling them up front shows that you understand what they do for a living.

Which, at most literary conferences, will render you something of a novelty.

So let’s get back to practicalities. Yesterday, I suggested in passing that one good way to identify your book’s target market is to seek out how many people are already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. Not the good folks who are already out there buying novels like yours, bless ‘em, but potential readers with an interest in some aspect of the story you are telling.

What do I mean? Well, in even the most personal literary fiction, even the most intimate memoir is about something other than the writing in the book, right? A sensitive novel about a professional mah-jongg player who falls in love with a bricklayer she meets in her Morris dancing class is arguably not only going to be of interest to inveterate readers of women’s fiction; potentially, those who already participate in mah-jongg, bricklaying, and Morris dancing might well find your book absolutely fascinating.

If you doubt that such interests translate into book sales, take a gander at how many books only marginally related to golf there are: quite a few, probably disproportionate to the percentage of the reading population who actually plays the game. But think about Christmas and Father’s Day: these books answer the perennial question, “What do you give the golfer who has everything BUT a thriller about a 5 iron-wielding maniac?”

People who are interested in your novel’s or memoir’s underlying subject matter are as legitimately your book’s target market as readers who regularly buy books in your chosen category. Declare them as such.

It’s not enough just to tell agents and editors that these additional demographics exist, however. For this information to help you market your book, you’re going to have to get specific. To build upon yesterday’s example, let’s say you’ve written a charming novel about Tina, a Gen X woman who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12.

As the better-prepared incarnations of Suzette informed us yesterday (you had to be there), there are 47 Gen Xers currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. And half of them are, like Tina, female.
So without reaching at all, you could safely say that almost 12 million Americans already have life experience that would incline them to identify with Tina.

That’s a heck of a lot more persuasive, from an agent’s point of view, than merely pointing out that daughters of divorced parents might conceivably find resonance in Suzette’s book.

Nor need you limit yourself, you clever marketer, to the demographic closest to your protagonist’s; you could consider the vocations and avocations of minor characters as well. If Tina’s father is a collector of classic cars, do you think he’s the only one in the country? If her best friend has a child with Down syndrome, wouldn’t your book be interesting to parents dealing with similar issues?

And given that one of the greatest gifts the internet has bestowed upon us all is the ability to create interest-based communities amongst far-flung people, what’s the probability that a simple web search will turn up a support group or an article containing statistics about just how many of these fine people are currently navigating their way across the earth’s crust?

”Whoa!” I hear some of you cry indignantly. “Who do I look like, George Gallup? Wouldn’t any agent or editor who specializes in a book like mine have a substantially better idea of the existing market than I ever could — and what’s more, infinitely greater practical means of finding out the relevant statistics? Do I have to do ALL of the agent’s job for him? When will this nightmare end, oh Lord, when will it end?”

Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you get angry?

Especially, as in this case, when annoyance stems from a very real change in the publishing industry: even ten years ago, no one, but no one, would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been standard for NF book proposals.)

And even now, you could get away with not quoting actual statistics in your pitch, as long as you are very specific about whom your ideal reader will be. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching underestimating how big your potential market is.

And when I say underestimating, I’m not talking about a merely imprecise ballpark estimate. I’m talking about an extremely busy publishing professional who hears a pitch or reads a query and thinks, “This would be really appealing to readers who’ve recently experienced deaths in their immediate families, but realistically, how many of them could there be in the United States in any given year? Maybe a hundred thousand? That’s a niche market.”

Niche market, incidentally, is the industry’s polite term for any group of people too small to deserve its own floor-to-ceiling shelf at Barnes & Noble. If the agent or editor to whom you’re pitching says, “Well, your book would appeal to only a niche market,” that’s his way of telling you there just isn’t a market for you type of book right now.

A couple of problems with this response, logically speaking. First, the literary market changes all the time; what’s considered niche market fodder today may well be the hot trend of next year. (I don’t advise telling that to an agent or editor who has just rejected your pitch on that basis; I just thought you might like to know.)

Second — and more pertinent to the construction of a successful pitch — the agent/editor is radically underestimating the size of the potential market: the book described above has millions of readers with direct personal experience of dealing with a loved one’s death.

How do I know this? The old-fashioned way; I did some research. In 2004, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Furthermore, widows and widowers make up 7% of the U.S. population; 45% of women over the age of 65 have been widowed at least once.

If that’s a niche in the book-buying market, I’d hate to see a cave.

How much harm could it possibly do if your dream agent or editor misunderstands the size of your book’s potential audience? Let me let you in on a little industry secret: people in the industry have a very clear idea of what HAS sold in the past, but are not always very accurate predictors about what WILL sell in the future. THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB floated around forever before it found a home, for instance, as, I’m told, did COLD MOUNTAIN. And let’s not even begin to talk about BRIDGET JONES.

My point is, it might be worth taking some of the prevailing wisdom floating around writers’ conferences with a grain of salt. Acquiring a book is ALWAYS a speculation.

Historically, a book’s getting rejected quite a bit hasn’t necessarily proven a very good predictor of its eventual success. In fact, as long-time readers of this blog are already well aware, five of the ten best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially refused by more than a dozen publishers who simply did not understand their market appeal — and refused to take a chance on a first-time author.

Get a load of what got turned down as appealing to only a niche market:

mash-coverRichard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses. {“How many Army doctors could there possibly be?” they must have scoffed. “And who else would care?”)

kon-tiki-coverThor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki. “This might appeal to people who sail for pleasure, but can we afford a novel for the yacht-owning niche?”)

mulberry-street-coverDr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses. (“Do we really want to confuse children?”)

jonathan-livingston-seagull-coverRichard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses. (“The only person I have ever known who cared about seagulls was my mad great-aunt Kate, who spent her last years wandering down to the beach to offer them caviar on crackers. Next!”)

auntie-mame-coverPatrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses. (I have no idea what they were thinking here; perhaps that it was really a memoir?)

To render these rejections more impressive, these first books were passed upon back when it was significantly easier to get published than it is now. How much easier, you ask? Well, back then, the major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work; it was before the computer explosion multiplied submissions exponentially, and before the array of major publishing houses consolidated into just a few.

With this much editorial rejection, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of these books to find an agent today, let alone a publisher? And yet can you even picture the publishing world without any of them?

Aren’t you glad these five authors didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom and give up on their manuscripts?

But if you were Richard Hooker today, wouldn’t you take a few moments to verify the number of Korean War veterans (or veterans of any foreign war, or doctors who have served in war zones, or…) BEFORE you composed your first query letter? If for no other reason than to make it easier for your agent to pitch the book to editors, for your editor to pitch it in-house, and the marketing department to pitch it to distributors.

The Internet is a tremendous resource for finding such statistics, although do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible.

How can you verify the numbers? Call the main branch of public library in the big city closest to you, and ask to speak to the reference librarian. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff is amazing. Send them flowers.) They may not always be able to find the particular fact you are seeking, but they can pretty much invariably steer you in the right direction.

One caveat about information line etiquette: every time I have ever given this advice in a class, at least one writer has come stomping back to me. “I called and asked,” this earnest soul will cry with ire, “but they said they couldn’t help me.”

When prodded, they all turn out to have made the same mistake: they called up an information line and said something on the order of, “I am marketing a YA novel about a serial killer. What statistics can you give me?” Naturally, the info line folks demurred; it’s not their job, after all, to come up with marketing insights for aspiring writers’ books.

What their job does render them eminently qualified to do, on the other hand, is to answer questions like, “Can you tell me, please, how many US high schools offer gun safety classes? And how many students take these classes each year?”

The moral: make your questions as specific as possible, and don’t ask more than three in any given call. (You can always call back tomorrow, right?)

And please, don’t waste their time by telling them WHY you want to know, or you’re likely to end up with statistics about how many first novels on coal-mining beauty queens were sold within the last five years. Keep it short and to the point.

I think I’ll pause here for the day, to give all of you a chance to give some deep, serious thought to what your book has to offer readers — and how you might quantify the mobs of readers you envision. Think creatively, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part V: talking about your book’s market appeal in terms the entire industry can understand, or, there’s still no fool like a fool playing hooky

July 20th, 2009

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Welcome back to my annual series on the conception, construction, and delivery of a good verbal pitch for a book manuscript or nonfiction proposal. I’ve been worrying all weekend, campers, that I overwhelmed some of you last time by cramming everything you have ever wanted to know about book categories but were afraid to ask into a single post. Believe it or not, I’ve written far, far more extensively on the subject in the past: you’ll find an entire series about it under the BOOK CATEGORIES section in the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Before we move on to the next building block of a successful pitch, I suppose I should say a few words to those of you who spent the weekend not just figuring out your respective book categories, but wondering why in the heck I went to such great lengths in my last post to defend the necessity of having to pick one at all. One of the great advantages — and great liabilities — of having taught so many aspiring writers to pitch (in every context from one-on-one tutoring to conducting classes for a couple of hundred people to running mass pitching practice sessions to working with small writers’ groups via Skype or conference call) is that over the years, I have heard legions of writers complain bitterly about the process.

Leaving aside for the moment the undeniable fact that a successful conference pitch allows the pitcher to skip the querying step of landing an agent entirely — not a benefit at which anyone looking for an agent should be turning up his perky little nose — the source of the bitterness is not all that mysterious. Many, if not most, agent-seeking writers (and plenty of already-agented ones) resent, hate, or at minimum fear paying a lot (or even a little) money to conference organizers in exchange for the opportunity to sit across a table from an agent or editor and try to convince her that your premise is fresh enough and a good enough fit with the current market in your book’s category to render it worth her while to take a gander at the first few pages of the manuscript or proposal.

(Which, in case any of you have been wondering, is the goal of a pitch — or a query, for that matter: enticing the agent or editor to ask to read your work. Not, as too many pitchers and queriers assume, to induce a spontaneous cry of, “I love this book! I don’t need to read a syllable of it — I’m going to get this writers name on a contract this very day!”)

Given the level of pressure inherent to pitching, the resentment, etc. are certainly understandable — and not just because we all know that judging the quality of writing by how the writer talks about it is a little like judging a singer’s voice by looking at the sheet music he’s planning to sing.

Ever since the first caveperson chiseled the first sentence on cave wall and called the rest of the clan to admire it, writers have been pretty sensitive to critique. No matter how many times a writer tells herself, rightly, that a rejection based solely upon how she talks about her writing could not possibly mean that the rejecter hates the writing he hasn’t read, it sure can feel like it in the moment.

So I really can’t blame first-time pitchers — or even experienced ones — for fearing the prospect of pitching. What puzzles me is the extreme distaste so many first-time pitchers display toward even the concept of talking about their books as products that they are trying to market.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what anyone who pitches or queries an agent is doing.

A surprisingly hefty percentage of aspiring writers seem to find that hard to accept. I hate to stick a pin in anyone’s illusions, but unless a writer of books plans to post his writing for free on the internet or print up copies at his own expense and hand them out gratis on street corners, he’s thinking in terms of getting paid.

So in what sense is his manuscript or NF book proposal not a product he’s trying to sell to a publishing house? And by what stretch of the imagination is the relationship he’s attempting to establish with an agent not primarily a business one?

For that reason, we’ve already learned the first building block of a successful pitch: the book category, the terminology that enables everyone in the industry to know instantly which presses, editors, and agents might be interested in a particular book. Learning to describe your work in the same terms that the publishing industry would is a far, far more effective strategy for meeting those goals than folding your arms and pouting about how unfair it is that art has to be shoved into a marketing category.

Not only is the latter a waste of energy for most writers (some honestly do find resentment motivating, but most merely find it enervating), but refusing to speak the language of the industry in a pitch or query is self-defeating; all insisting upon eschewing any discussion of marketability does, typically, is make the agent or editor on the receiving end think, “Oh, dear, here’s another one who doesn’t know how publishing works.”

Being able to describe one’s book in market terms is as essential for a killer pitch as for an effective query letter. So today, we’re going to be focusing closely on marketing your art.

As Fat Albert used to say, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.

Last time, I broached the subject of the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, the book category. The more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among pitchers is in the opposite direction. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the author’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

Which means, incidentally, that within the pitch setting, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language.

While it may feel like writing your own tombstone, it’s just better marketing strategy to commit to a category and state it at the BEGINNING of your pitch, rather than making your hearer try to glean a category after hearing five minutes of exposition on the plot. Why? Well, among other things, being up front about it will permit your pitch-hearer to listen to the CONTENT of your pitch, rather than thinking the whole time, “Well, that sounds sort of like a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery. How on earth am I going to categorize that?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

By contrast, a manuscript or proposal with a category already assigned to it requires less energy to market. This handy tool will not only feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see the TITLE PAGES category at right before you even CONSIDER submitting any material to an agent or editor.)

Okay, now that we have one tool in our writerly toolkit, let’s work on adding a more sophisticated marketing instrument, one that is not technically required, but will instantly stamp your pitch/query as more professional.

I refer, of course, to identifying your target market. Or, to be more precise, to preparing a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic group.

And yes, Virginia, that can mean adding a few — dare I say it? — statistics to your pitch or query letter.

Intimidating news to those of us who vastly preferred the verbal section of the SAT to the math, isn’t it? (Actually, I was always good at math, but I suppose my high school calculus teacher didn’t nickname me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. Still, there’s no fool like a fool playing hooky, so let’s press on.)

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.) Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter.

But before I talk about how one goes about doing that, let’s discuss what a target market is. Simply put, the target market for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. It is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

Or, to put it another way, who out there needs to read your book and why?

I know these are not the first questions we writers like to ask ourselves, but if you pictured your ideal reader, who would it be? What books does this reader already buy? Who are her favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with those that would draw your ideal reader to both?

While we’re at it, who represents her favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective: if she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs.

Do Fat Albert and the Cosby kids really need to break down these issues into a song for the likely outcome to be clear?

It’s very much worth your while to give some thought to your target readership BEFORE you pitch or query, so you may point it out to that nervous editor or market-anxious agent. Try to think about it not as criticism of your book, but as a legitimate marketing question: who is going to read your book, and why?

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make you stand out from the crowd of pitchers.

Why? Well, to put it charitably, the vast majority of fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — which is to say, most don’t seem to consider the question at all. (A luxury, I might point out, that nonfiction writers do not have: NF book proposals invariably have an entire SECTION on target audience. No one ever seems to think that is incompatible with the production of art.) Or when fiction writers are forced to answer the question, they identify their readership in the broadest possible terms.

PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Especially the one about Oprah — even if your book is in fact a natural for her show. Agents in North America hear that all the time, applied to a jaw-droppingly broad array of books.

Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I have heard that particular cliché, I would own my own publishing house — and the island upon which it stood, the fleet of sailboats to transport books from there to market, and a small navy’s worth of shark-wranglers to keep my employees’ limbs safe while they paddled between editing projects. (For an interesting discussion amongst Author! Author! readers about the effects of the Oprah Book Club on book sales in this country, please see the comments on this post from last year.

Why do sweeping generalizations tend to be ineffectual, you ask? Well, agents and editors do have quite a bit of practical experience with book marketing: they know for a fact that no single book will appeal to EVERY woman in America, for instance. Since they hear such claims so often, after awhile, they just block out all hyperbole.

Coming from authors, that is. Anyone who has ever read a marketing blurb knows that folks in the publishing industry are not all that shy about using hyperbole themselves.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents an immense group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to her?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

Once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your pitch, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is will make it MUCH simpler for them to talk about your book to higher-ups.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my pitch or query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things.”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. Let’s further assume that like the vast majority of pitchers, she has not thought about her target market before walking into her appointment with agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana, the agent to whom she is pitching, says that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

The result was that Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.”

So what’s the moral here? That as scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities; writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about marketing it to them.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt say many times again: art for art’s sake is marvelous, but an author’s being cognizant of the realities of the market renders it far more likely that her book is going to be successful.

And, to paraphrase Fat Albert, those who don’t do their homework are not as likely to succeed as often as those who do.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to dig up specifics about your target demographic relatively painlessly. As always, if any of you out there find what I’m suggesting confusing, I would MUCH rather that you ask me about it BEFORE you follow my advice than after.

I’m funny that way. In the meantime, don’t play hooky, try not to assume, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part IV, in which I finally stop giving preliminary cautions and start talking about the building blocks of a terrific pitch. Oh, and you’re going to have to pick a book category.

July 17th, 2009

a-pile-of-boxes

Yes, it’s true: in the fourth installment in this series, I’m moving beyond telling you how to prepare for a conference where you might be able to pitch your book to an agent or editor, either formally or informally, and proceeding toward how to decide what to say when you get there. While some might shake their heads, muttering, “Why on earth is she going over every nuance, when we’re already deep in literary conference season?”, well, I have two answers.

First, for the many, many aspiring writers who (unwisely, I think) put off constructing (or often even thinking about) their pitches until the eve of the conference, I’ve established a super-quick crash course in how to do it: you’ll find it under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Second, years of experience teaching good writers to pitch lead me to believe that just telling you what to do without helping you understand why each part of the pitch is necessary in order to market your work persuasively to agents and editors — including parts that are usually left out of the three-line pitch entirely — usually results not only in less effective pitches, but writers not particularly comfortable with giving them. Call me zany — and believe me, there are plenty of local conference organizers who do — but I just don’t believe that pitching advice that tells writers to blurt out a summary of their books as fast as humanly possible and leaves it at that is actually all that helpful come pitching time.

Hey, I warned you that my approach to pitching was a bit unorthodox.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently. Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.”

I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances. I know: radical.

Thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations that will define the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around than croaking out the bare bones of your premise in 10 seconds, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion:

DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book’s plot or argument in just a few lines. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

Why? Because this is the single most important piece of information you can tell an agent or editor about what you write. And because everyone in the US publishing industry talks about the demarcations in the same terms, you’re going to communicate a whole lot better with them if you use the book categories they already know. Which are:

For fiction: 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, Adult 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.

For nonfiction: 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).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites. But these are enough to get you started.

Pick one.

Before anybody out there starts to freak out about the prospect of having to select the perfect pre-fab label, let me hasten to add: aspiring writers are not singled out for punishment in having to do this; literally every professional author does as well. It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary of the book’s contents.

And contrary to popular belief, choosing does not define a writer for life: the book category is merely the conceptual box into which all books aimed at a particular already-established market are placed. Literally every book published by a North American publisher has been assigned to such a category.

So calm down and ask yourself: in a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Lest any of you fiction writers are tempted to say, “Oh, my book would just be in the literature section, filed under my last name,” that’s not a good enough answer. Nor is, “Oh, I’m a genre-buster — I don’t want to limit myself with a label.”

That kind of answer just isn’t useful to an agent — on order to sell your book to an editor, your agent is going to need to be able to tell him right off the bat what kind of a book it is, not merely that she thinks it’s well written. Similarly, in order to argue that your book belongs in next year’s catalog, an editor is going to have to tell the rest of the folks at the publishing house the book category, just as the marketing department is going to have to tell the distributor, and the distributor the bookstore buyer.

Thus, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level. So it follows as night the day that aspiring writers who equivocate between categories because they believe (not entirely without reason) that their books are too complicated to be shoved into a single conceptual box, or even refuse define their work automatically render it harder for all of these people to do their jobs.

And that’s not the world’s best idea, because if you want them to assist you in getting your writing into print, it’s really much more in your interests than theirs to make it as easy as possible to help you.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital and I’ve never heard any other pitching advisor mention it: aspiring writers who go out of their way to make it easy for folks in the publishing industry to help them succeed tend to garner a heck of a lot more help than those who make it difficult.

Partially, that’s just human nature: a person for whom it’s a pain to do favors tends not to have others leaping forward to do him any. But partially, it’s also because most writers inadvertently make it difficult by not learning how to talk about or present their work professionally.

Which leads me to the other, utterly selfish reason that you should figure out the proper category for your book, and pronto: once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and, as I’ve been pointing out over the last few days, no agent represents every kind of book. Since they define their work by book category, writers’ reluctance to commit just seems like ignorance of how books are sold.

Does that conclusion seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t, particularly: the sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers. So I’m here to tell you: the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

But I even as I typed that last bit, I could sense that some of you out there were still feeling abused for having to adhere to the established categories, feeling (and not without some justification) that there’s more to art than marketing labels. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone: you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference anywhere in North America without hitting a writer who believes that his artistic freedoms are endangered by the very request. Or a writer who has fretted for a year about picking the right category. And anyone who has ever listened to pitches for a living can tell you horror stories about writers who wasted half (or even all) of their pitch appointments complaining about it.

To save any of you from ending up as the subject of such a tale. let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this fundamental question, and why the standard oh, my God, don’t make me pick! responses tend not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward request for marketing information. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s not really a romance novel. I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

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

Remember, 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.

I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process. And much, much, MUCH harder for a writer to pitch successfully.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories. In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Glad you asked — you know how I love step-by-step instructions.

1. Learn where book categories lurk.
In this age of rampant standardization of book packaging, this isn’t all that hard to do. Take a gander at the back jacket of most recently-released hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Not sure how to find it? Okay, here’s the back cover of Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer). Follow the lead of my pen:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

You may notice that her publisher has listed the book in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (I’m not kidding: it honestly is very funny.)

The other common locale for a book category, especially on trade paperbacks and softcover books, is in the box with the barcode. Here’s the back of Jonathan Selwood’s hilarious THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since the novel partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

2. Find some recently-released books similar to yours and check how they’ve been categorized.
Think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough to steer you in the right direction

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends.

If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

3. See how the books on your list have been categorized by their publishers.
Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

4. From among those categories, select the one that intuitively seems to fit your book best.
Book categorization is not a perfect science — pick the one that comes NEAREST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

Fair warning: many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground. Choose the one that you like best; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(a) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(b) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, fiction would be a good choice.

If it does assume a female readership, or if the protagonist is female, consider women’s fiction. And just in case any of you are harboring the surprisingly pervasive prejudice that women’s fiction label is automatically pejorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category.

(c) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be mainstream fiction (also known as commercial fiction).

(d) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction or contemporary fiction.

(e) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, have a sense of humor, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category, especially if your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags borders on the pathological.

Before any chick lit writer gets all defensive on me, allow me to add that there is some chick lit out there does deal with serious subject matter (see the comments on this post); like many, many other book category distinctions, the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit is often a matter of tone. If you write in either category and are unsure what that means, it would be a grand idea to walk into a bookstore, ask a savvy clerk to point out the three best recent releases in women’s fiction and chick lit, and read the first few pages of each.

All that being said, it’s not completely unheard-of for women’s fiction with a young protagonist to be assigned to chick lit simply due to the sex and age of the writer, or for an agent to decide to submit a book to chick lit editors as chick lit and women’s fiction editors as women’s fiction. Ultimately, categorization is a call the agent to make; all you’re trying to do in a pitch or query is to find a label in the general ballpark.

Which leads me to…

(f) Are you planning on pitching or querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know for sure whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

5. Use the book category you’ve chosen to describe your manuscript whenever you are communicating with anyone in the publishing industry.

Feel free to use it ubiquitously. Its uses are myriad: in your pitch, in your query letter, on your title page (if you don’t know where this info should go, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right), in checking an agent’s conference blurb or listing in an agency guide to see whether she represents your kind of book, whenever anyone at a literary event asks, “So, what do you write?”

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry 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, just as a memoir is always nonfiction. (Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years.)

Some of you are still squirming under the necessity of choosing, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see categories other than the ones you’ve listed on book jackets and when authors speak about their work. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books, and I can refer to my manuscript any way I like — or not categorize it at all.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. And there’s no international police force compelling every published author out there to speak of their books in the same terms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it behooves an aspiring writer to make up a book category. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t use descriptions that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

That being said, generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (Hey, it happens.)

When in doubt, pick a more general category over a hyper-specific one. Or at any rate, select the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

But again, try not to stress about it too much. Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider how you’ve planning to market my work when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. (For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.)

6. What to do if you just cannot bring yourself to apply step 5 to the category that makes the most sense
If you truly get stuck in mid-decision, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be 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 to be the one to break it to you.

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.

Since that is precisely what you want her to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. (And have, as it happens.)

And if you’ve narrowed it down to a single category, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to Step 2 of writing your pitch.

Which, not entirely coincidentally, will be the subject of my next post. (Hey, I told you I liked step-by-step directions.) Keep up the good work!

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