Book marketing 101: hitting the keynote, Hollywood-style, or, Godzilla meets Anne Frank

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the basic building blocks of marketing a book. While my primary focus here is on helping you create a pitch, going through each of the steps I outline here will undoubtedly make you a better querier, too, if not a better human being.

Okay, so that last claim may have been a trifle over the top, but I’m in a festive mood today: 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. Interesting, no?)

What is a keynote, you ask? 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. 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 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: 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. (Remember, it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but 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?”

If you have a keynote prepared, you honestly are going to take up only a few seconds of her time. Brevity is the soul of the keynote. Its goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more — not to sell the book.

How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift 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.

Let me repeat part of that, because it’s crucial. All too often, aspiring writers will knock 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. But 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 pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. 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. (Not to be confused with a book’s hook, the opening paragraph that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise.)

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 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, 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.

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.

And that’s not just about ego, really. 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 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 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?”

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?”).

Remember, you don’t want to summarize here — you want to intrigue. Keep it brief, and make it memorable.

How does one pull off both simultaneously, you ask? Tips on same follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

9 Replies to “Book marketing 101: hitting the keynote, Hollywood-style, or, Godzilla meets Anne Frank”

  1. I remember this from a year ago, although I believe you may have used some different examples. (I’m not 100% sure as I am relying on memory and not going back into the archieves) I think that I prefer the keynote statement/question as well. I used mine last year with fairly good results…three agents asked me to send a sample submission. With the type of story I have written, I just can’t think of anything that would fit the Hollywood Hook style.
    On another topic, would anyone going to the PNWA Conference from the Spokane area be interested in a passenger willing to share or cover the price of gas? My wife and daughter will drive over towards the end and we will do some vacationing once the conference is over, and thus I will have a ride home. To avoid using two cars, I was (perhaps am) planning to fly. But if anyone is going from this area and is agreeable to me as a passenger, I think it would be that much more convenient.
    I’m in the Spokane area phone book.

    Anne, I hope you don’t mind me using your blog for a little electronic hitch-hiking!

  2. Anne,

    One of the other literary blogs that I follow is by Nathan Bransford, and he hates rhetorical questions. He’s gone as far as to declare war against queries that start with rhetorical questions.

    Seriously, that’s one of his greatest pet peeves.

    In fact he alludes to this in Monday’s post and answers someone’s question about that in his comment trail.

    You can find it here:

    I’m providing that as just a counterpoint to show that no matter what you choose, no size will fit all. Also that if you have the opportunity to research the people you wish to approach, you might discover that you need to tailor your pitch for them.

    BTW, Anne, I love your wit.


    1. Your comment made me smile, Linda: this is precisely why I do an entire extended series on marketing each year, going over the logic, rather than just giving people cut-and-dried rules to follow in every instance. All of the various pieces I’ve been talking about (and will continue to talk about) are PARTS of successful marketing, not individual strategies intended to stand alone — and certainly not to take the place of, say, the first paragraph of a query letter.

      Personally, I would not use a keynote in a query letter at all — for precisely the reason you mention: a lot of agents don’t like the rhetorical question opening in query letters. Plenty of agents dislike rhetorical questions as openers of novels, and even more dislike them as the first lines of synopses.

      But the keynote IS extremely useful for in-person chance meetings.

      As you say, it’s just goes to show that it pays to check in advance what a particular agent likes, especially if he’s gone to the trouble of posting his preferences on the web. But it also goes to show that the common belief that a single style of pitching a book — be it the Hollywood Hook, a keynote, or a 3-line pitch — should work in EVERY marketing context is misguided. Different tools work in different contexts.

    1. Bernita, I would LOVE to learn that time travel were genetic-based: I come from a long line of science fiction writers, so my genes would probably be prime!

      PS: that’s a great rhetorical keynote.

  3. I stumbled on your site searching for marketing strategies for my first novel, Behind The Velvet Curtain. I really enjoyed the reading and got a great deal of helpful info from all of you.


    1. Thanks, S! Glad to be of help. Do check out the post for yesterday (Friday, July 20, 2007), where first-time novelist Jonathan Selwood talks about marketing his book. Very interesting strategies.

      You were too polite to do it, but as I always like to help fellow writers, I’m going to add a link to your book so readers intrigued by your title can find you.

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