For the last few days, I have been writing about the keynote, the single-sentence grabber for your book. Again, to make it absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print — the keynote is designed to help open doors, not to serve as a substitute for the pitch. Yesterday, I gave some examples of how to use it. Today, I’m going to give a few tips on how to spice it up.
You didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?
Remember, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch. So you will want to make it — say it with me now — MEMORABLE.
How does a novelist accustomed to page-long descriptions pull that off? Don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery. If you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”
Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony.
I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound conflict-ridden. How? Off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”
Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin. Thou shalt not do that on my watch.
I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book were to soothe. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights?” is actually a better keynote.
Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.
Oh, as if both pitching and querying weren’t a species of seduction? Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”
And that’s about as poetic a definition of marketing artistic work that you’re going to find. Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before.
Another effective method for a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution. This works especially well for NF books on depressing subjects. A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and here’s what you can do about it.”
Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like problems to have solutions.
Remember how I urged you to ask advice givers how they know their techniques will work? I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there are two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of my latest book proposal, and scores of preventably dying adults. It’s a fascinating story (I can say that, because I’m writing about someone else), but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing. If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounds like a beacon of hope. Which I sincerely hope it will be.
I’m pleased to report that it’s in the hands of editors as I write this — but if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt it would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbor an absurd prejudice for writing that they believe they can sell.
They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, heavy subject matter tends to be harder to sell, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it. Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.
Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.
So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and ABSOLUTELY original spin on them.
Actually, that’s a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: remember, you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is UNIQUE. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.
If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, 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.
Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction. The goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to make them interested in your BOOK. After all, realistically, they’re not going to learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose, and while I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.
And remember, good delivery is not the same thing as book memorability. I once went to a poetry reading at conference that STILL haunts my nightmares. 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. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)
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 my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush. By the end of his piece, everyone was distinctly uncomfortable — and remembered his performance.
But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall his basic storyline? No.
Notice what happened here — he made his PERFORMANCE memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing. Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who read an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us women under 40 would have been substantially more impressed if someone ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.)
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 aforementioned 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.
Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — that’s all memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at him already that day.
Believe it or not, we’re right on schedule for ramping up to the pitch proper. Tomorrow, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit. Think of it as my present to the shy. In the meantime, keep up the good work!