Yesterday, I warned you that my approach to pitching is a TEENY 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. But thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process, I find: 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 of the rest of your life as a professional writer.
Much nicer to wrap your brain around, 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. 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.
And no, I don’t mean just in fiction, alphabetically. 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?
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, writers often do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and no agent represents every kind of book. 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.
Yet 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?” The book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level.
Before I launch into how to figure out where your book belongs, let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this primary question, and why the standard response tends 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 question about marketing. 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 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…”
To put it bluntly, 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. And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.
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 hyphenate, and don’t make up a category.
How do you know where to start? Take a gander at the back jacket of most 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.
Now, 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? 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.
You can also go through the generally accepted categories and see what intuitively seems like the best fit. Here is the list 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; 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.
Pick one for your novel. Specifically, pick the one that comes CLOSEST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. 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.
For NF, the accepted categories are: 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).
Yes, I’m running through these quickly, but do not despair: the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites, and I have gone over all of the standard categories individually under the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right.
And yes, one does occasionally see other categories listed on book jackets. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should make one up.
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. (It happens.)
Trust 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 it when I’m writing my next novel?”
THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.
When in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell. (And for those of you out there sporting ovaries: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category. It’s something of a misnomer, because the vast majority of fiction buyers in North America are women, but hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it.)
If you truly get stuck, 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, and 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 yield 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 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. And that is precisely what you want them to be doing, right?
If you’re still a bit confused, don’t panic: tomorrow, I shall delve into fine-tuning your selection. In the meantime, keep up the good work!