As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!) The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now.
And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract. Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old.
My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly. If you doubt this, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.)
Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.
What happened in that intervening 2+ years to alter the standard contract, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.
The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that last year, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.
Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, checking out your own publicity? Yet such is the prevailing paranoia that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies.
Oh, and for the last year and a half, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.
So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.
You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?
Yes, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.
Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books.
“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”
Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10-15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.
So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared?
Seriously, I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto). “Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”
Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point. That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.
It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts.
So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one. However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch. To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical.
News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it.
There’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else: pitch fatigue, the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.
Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.
I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Last year, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days.
Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, I think it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend.”
Part of the problem is environmental. Agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.
I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity them; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.
Gather up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.
Got it? Now: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to go to the effort of drawing more details about the book out of the pitcher? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?
Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?
Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.
And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the next month talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences. By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.
In short, to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. I know you’re up for it.
But to achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands. The first building block of fluency follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!