The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part VI: The Magic First Hundred Words

Hello, readers –

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Remember, it’s very, very helpful for a writer to have all of her fingers in working order — try not to linger too close to lit fireworks.

Okay, if you’ve been following the blog for the past few days, you will have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. By now, you should have determined your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identified your target market (July 1), come up with a few strong selling points (July 2), and developed a snappy keynote statement (yesterday).

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

Nifty trick, eh?

Once again, I must add a disclaimer: this strategy is an invention of my own, the fruit of watching hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country, 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. Half the time, these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

Frankly, I think it’s rather mean to put well-meaning people in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, about which I will tell you tomorrow — 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 what you are talking about. And 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.

My goal here 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.

Ready to learn what they are? Here goes:

”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.

More importantly, if you learn this little speech 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 — with ease. 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.

This is crucial, as agents and editors are (as I believe I have mentioned 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.) By the time many first-time pitchers get around to mentioning their books, after they have shilly-shallied for a few minutes, the agent in front of them has usually already mentally stamped their foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters. 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.

One caveat about using these words to introduce yourself to other writers at a conference: it is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what HE writes before you start going on at great length about your own work. 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. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard; it’s one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage. And 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. (Get out of the habit NOW of promising these people free copies of your future books, by the way: nowadays, authors get very few free copies, and you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of copies for your kith and kin, do you?)

So 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, 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.

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to practice 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 in your area. 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?

Practice, practice, practice those first hundred words, my friends. Tomorrow, I shall move on to the elevator speech (that’s those pesky three sentences), and after that, pulling it all together for the pitch! So fasten your seatbelts, everybody – the fireworks of the 4th aside, it’s going to be a bumpy week. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: if you’re just tuning in, and you are still considering whether or not to attend this summer’s PNWA conference, would it be helpful to know a bit about the professional likes and dislikes of the agents and editors who will be available there for pitching? Check out my archived blogs for the skinny on what they’ve been buying and selling lately: April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part V: Hitting the Keynote

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my ongoing series on building a persuasive pitch. Shout hallelujah, citizens, for today, we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously with envy. (Did you know that when he gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain. They always added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their writing would be surprised and delighted. Interesting, no?

Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT. What is it, you ask? The keynote 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.

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 meeting your dream agent coming out of the bathroom (hey, this is a glamorous business). Since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half of that time, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds?

Seriously, there are several reasons that you might want to come up with a keynote statement for your book (other than that I told you to, of course). A keynote will allow you to be able to sound out someone in a hallway about interest in your book, to give an agent or editor an instant, read-made hook to sell your work, and to be able to sound like a professional writer on a moment’s notice. None of these are abilities at which you should be sneezing, smarty-pants.

Let me pause for a moment and focus on the last benefit on the list. One of the biggest differences between a professional writer and one who is new to the biz is how she answers the ubiquitous question, “So, what do you write?” Almost invariably, those unused to the question will betray their inexperience by shilly-shallying, giving evasive answers. A professional, on the other hand, will promptly tell the questioner in a couple of brief sentences the book category in which she writes, along with a quick quip or two about her most recent project. Not a long-winded speech, or boasts about her own writing talent, just a snippet about the book itself, to see if her auditor is interested before moving into more detail.

Agents and editors really, really like to see unpublished writers exhibit the latter behavior. They are acutely, even exaggeratedly, aware of how busy they are. (To quote those immortal social philosophers, the Bee Gees, all we can do is “try to understand/New York time’s effect on man.”) In their native habitat, these are people who fly into a fury if the woman in front of them in the deli line hesitates for fifteen seconds between pastrami or roast beef on her sandwich; just because they are our guests in the more laid-back PNW for a few days doesn’t mean that they shed that Manhattanite resentment of people who waste entire nanoseconds of their precious time.

Some writers don’t like to be perceived as tooting their own horns, which is understandable. But to someone trying to get a quick impression of whether a writer’s work might be worth sampling, demurrals do not come across as charming self-deprecation, but as an annoying disregard of the industry’s unspoken limit to how long a writer gets to take up an agent or editor’s time. No matter what anyone tells you, if you are over the age of 10, it’s just not cute.

Let me give you a non-writing example to demonstrate how irritating such waffling can be. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, something I do not tell people lightly, as they either take an instantaneous dislike to me, assuming that I must be a snob, or glom onto me, assuming that I have the private ears of kings and presidents alike, having gone to college with them. (The old university joke illustrates the third unappetizing possibility: How does a pretty woman get men to leave her alone in a bar? She starts a rumor that she went to Harvard.) For these reasons, many of us who do not habitually go around wearing our institutional affiliations on our chests in the form of sweatshirts choose not to share our educational backgrounds in social settings.

So when you ask many of my classmates where they went to school, they will respond evasively, “In the Boston area.” Now, to any Harvardian, that automatically declares that the speaker went to Harvard; people who went to MIT or Tufts tend to say so. But to anyone who doesn’t know the code, it sounds like an invitation to further questions, doesn’t it? So all too often, the subsequent conversation degenerates into a cutesy guessing game, with the Harvardian giving more and more evasive answers until the questioner loses all patience and shouts, “What — did you go to Harvard or something?”

This is precisely what it sounds like to people in the publishing industry when you equivocate about what you write. They don’t like guessing games, as a rule.

Okay, out comes my fairy godmother wand again: the next time you hear yourself start to equivocate about what you write, I decree that you will start hearing STAYING ALIVE playing in the back of your head on a continuous loop. Surely, any sane person will be willing to go to any length to avoid that dreadful fate…so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Okay, back to the keynote itself. What is its goal? To pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more. How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a BRIEF sentence or two.

And did I mention that it should be 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. 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!”

Didja notice how they all ended in 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 logically.

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? 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?

I have to say, 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. 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!)

I once asked a screenplay agent who favored pitch compression how he would pitch THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, a book light on plot but strong on character development. What would one say? A butler butles quietly? Hardly a grabber. Without missing a beat, the agent answered, “I would just pitch it as, ‘based on the bestselling book.’”

I love this answer, because it illustrates the point of the keynote so beautifully: the message itself is less important than the fact that you get your hearer’s eyebrows to shoot up.

Which brings me to the other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — 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 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 she could not automatically 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 yesterday: 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?”

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 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?”).

The main point is to make it — say it with me now — MEMORABLE. Don’t be afraid to use strong imagery (as in, “The earth is about to be covered thirty feet deep in lichen in three days. What would you do?”) If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp, 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.

Whatever you do, please do not confuse good delivery with book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that shall remain nameless because it got flooded out last year. 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). Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader. 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 our webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap.) By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and remembered his performance.

Notice what happened here — he made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is, but 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 proverbial plague? Yes.

This is a problem shared by a LOT of pitches, and even more Hollywood Hooks: they’re all 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.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss how to USE your newly-constructed keynote to wow all and sundry at a writers’ conference. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you who have not yet signed up for pitching meetings at the conference, please check out my archived blogs of April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. There, you will find information on who is representing and buying what these days, to help you make your appointment rankings wisely.

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

The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part III: identifying your target market

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my continuing series on the building blocks of a successful pitch. With them firmly stuffed into your writer’s bag of tricks, you should be as prepared as it is possible for any first-time pitcher to be to present your work to agents and editors at the upcoming PNWA summer conference. (And for those of you who have not yet registered, and thus not you’re your agent and editor selections, please check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. There, you will find copious information on who represents or prints what.)

So far, I have covered the building blocks that not only should feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter: for the last couple of days, I have been discussing book categories, and I snuck in a treatment of how professionals estimate word count (hint: it’s not the way your word processing program does) on June 23rd. (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 my post of February 17th.)

Today, however, I shall be moving on to a more sophisticated marketing tool, one that is not technically required, but is always appreciated. I refer, of course, to a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic. I refer, admittedly with some trepidation, to statistics. Even the most personal literary fiction is about something other than the writing in the book, and chances are, you will be able to track down some demographic information about who is interested that topic.

What do I mean? Well, let’s say you’ve written a charming novel about an American woman in her late 30s 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 your protagonist a Gen Xer — of whom there are 47 million currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. Think some of them might identify with your protagonist? Let’s say that your protagonist’s father is a collector of classic cars. Think he’s the only one in the country? And so forth.

”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 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?”

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 would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been pretty standard for NF book proposals.) And in truth, you could probably get away with not quoting actual statistics, as long as you are very specific about who you think your ideal reader is. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching radically underestimating how big your potential market is.

They don’t do it on purpose, you know. Honestly, is it fair to expect someone who spends her days poring over manuscripts in a Manhattan high-rise to have any idea how many corn farmers there are in Iowa?

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 dirty 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.

In fact, 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:

Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses.

Thor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki.)

Dr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses.

Richard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses.

Patrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses.

And think about it: these first books were roundly rejected back when it was significantly easier to get published, too, when the major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work, and back before so many of the 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 they didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom? And don’t you wish that Richard Hooker had taken 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 he composed his query letter?

My point is, even if you write on a very well-traveled topic, it’s always a good idea to have a few statistics at the ready, to back up your claim that there is a significant pre-existing audience for your book. The Internet is a tremendous resource, although do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible. If you really get stuck, 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 there 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.

Even after all this, I’m sure that there are more than a few of you out there who deeply resent the idea of having to identify a target market at all. Shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification? Well, yes, in a perfect world, or one without a competitive market. But think about it from the editor’s POV: if she can realistically only bring 8 books to press in the next year, how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without her losing her job?

It’s been my experience that most fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — but, as with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms whom you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language spoken by agents and editors. Their sales and marketing departments expect them to be able to speak in 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.

Let me give you a concrete example of what happens when you are vague. Remember the book above, about the Gen X woman reliving her parents’ messy divorce? Let’s assume that our author, Suzette, has not thought about her target market before walking into her pitch meeting. She’s stunned when the agent, Briana, says that there’s no market for such a book. Being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette’s instinct is to argue. “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, what Suzette actually meant by this is: 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 what agent Briana heard was: 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 an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) would conclude is this: this writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!

Obviously, then, being vague has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if Suzette had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: Yes, there’s 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?

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 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 at the ready.

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 didn’t know that. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.

And editor Ted thinks: 47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only 1% of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.

The moral is, it ALWAYS pays to be prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential. Think about your target reader — and why that reader really wants to read your book.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to another building block of a great pitch: knowing your book’s selling points. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini