The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part IV: Sell! Sell!

Hello, readers –

Yes, yes, I know: I don’t usually post on weekends, so why the Saturday AND Sunday posts? Nor do I generally post on national holidays, as I may well do this week. What’s the excuse for my unwonted chattiness, you ask? Well, I know that there are some of my faithful readers out there who would very much have liked to have been able to attend my pitching class last week, but being neither Seattle-area denizens nor possessors of teleporters, had to miss it. I’m trying to cover as much of the class material as possible by the end of this week, to help these fine people — and anyone else good enough to read my blog regularly — prep their pitches before the upcoming PNWA conference and the rest of the summer’s many literary conferences. I shall continue to give advice on the subject in the final days leading up to the conference, too, but I wanted to get the bulk of my sterling insights out to you early enough to give you time to ask follow-up questions.

Amn’t I a peach?

So welcome back to my series on the building blocks of a stellar pitch. Today, I’m going to talk about a little invention of my own, a single-page, bullet-pointed list of selling points for the book in question. This handy little document has more uses than duct tape (which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts). You can have it by your side during a pitch; you can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements; 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; your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors; 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. You can even, if you so desire, use it to give a paper cut to that particularly persistent admirer who keeps trailing around after you at the conference.

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

Scoff if you like, oh ye doubters, but a really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. In addition to its practical benefits, having one prepared before your first interaction with an agent or editor also sends a very strong unspoken message: you are an author who has taken the time to learn how the business side of publishing works, and are more than happy to do everything in your power to make your agent and editor’s jobs easier. My agent liked the one I included in my memoir proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.

So what is in this magic document? Single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread. I’m not talking about boasts about its utility to humanity in general (although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it) or inflated claims that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine), but about concrete facts about you and your book.

Your list of selling points can include market information, 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, and why will people want to read it? Is your novel based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Mention it. 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.

If you are stuck, think back to your target market (see yesterday’s post). 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? As I pointed out yesterday, 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?

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. 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.)

(2) Educational credentials. 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. (I have a very, very dusty doctorate that only sees the light of day at times like these. And, of course, to annoy medical doctors I don’t like.) 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 the PNWA 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. 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 read your work at one of the PNWA’s TWIO events, 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.

(5) 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.

(6) Trends and recent bestsellers. If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, state it here. If there has been a resent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. 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 yesterday’s blog 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, 2006 search on 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.

(7) Statistics. At risk of repeating myself from yesterday, 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. By listing the real statistics here, you minimize 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.

(8) Recent press coverage. People in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the irrational. 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 example: in 1997, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE ran 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

(9) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends. I hesitate to mention this one. Current events are tricky, 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. (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 blistering pace.)

If you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, do it here. 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 2007 – 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.

(10) Particular strengths of the book. What is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different from other offerings? Some possible examples: BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap displasia; while Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(11) Research. If you have done significant research or extensive interviews for the book, list it here. 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.

(12) Promotion already in place. 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, by PNW standards, the average agent or editor is barely computer-literate. Most major agencies don’t even employ in-house IT support for heaven’s sake. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person) put together a site for you.

Okay, I can hear some of you out there, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently by this point. “Um, Anne?” some of you say, 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 we will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference less than two weeks 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 the right time. Before you pitch is PRECISELY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points; I went through so many potential categories in order that everyone would be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities. 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 verifiable statistics.

You will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with 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.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to those magic words that summarize your book. Be prepared to get pithy, everybody. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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