Drum roll, please: here comes the main event. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch itself, the full 2-minute marketing statement you will give in a formal pitch meeting with an agent or editor.
As with the keynote and the elevator speech, the vast majority of pitchers make the mistake of trying to turn the pitch proper into a summary of the book’s plot — a tough job, for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level, as any experienced pitcher can tell you.
Rightly understood, though, the 2-minute pitch is something more exciting than a mere summary: an opportunity to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflicts in language and imagery that convinces the hearer that not only is this a compelling and unusual story, but that you are a gifted storyteller.
Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than trying to cram 400 pages of plot into seven or eight breaths’ worth of babbling?
While your elevator speech is the verbal equivalent of the introduce-the-premise paragraph in your query letter (which is a good secondary use for an elevator speech, by the way), the pitch itself is — or can be — a snapshot of the feel, the language, and the texture of the book. Rather than talking about the book, the 2-minute pitch is your opportunity to give the agent or editor a sense of what it would be like to READ it.
To borrow from that most useful piece of nearly universal writing advice, this is the time to show, not tell. Yes, your time is short, but you’re going to want to include a few memorable details to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.
Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right.”
I’m giving this advice for a reason, you know: the straightforward “This happens, then that happens, then that occurs…” method tends not to be very memorable, within the context of a day or two’s worth of pitches. Strong imagery, sensual details, unusual plot twists — these jump out at the pitch-hearer, screaming, “Hey, you — pay attention to me!”
To understand why vivid, story-like pitches tend to be effective, let me set the scene in a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room, for the benefit of those of you who have never experienced one first-hand. If you were expecting a quiet, intimate, church-like atmosphere, you’re bound to be surprised.
In the first place, pitch appointments are notorious for being both tightly booked and running long, more and more so as the day goes on. Obviously, a pitcher cannot afford to show up late, lest their agent be the one who zips through appointments like Speedy Gonzales. The result: the writer usually ends up waiting, gnawing her nails like a rabbit on speed, in a crowded hallway filled with similarly stressed people.
It is not typically an environment particularly conducive to either relaxation or concentration, both of which are desirable to attain just before entering a pitching situation.
Eventually, you will be led to a tiny cubicle, or perhaps a table in the middle of a room, where you will be expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent who has drunk FAR more coffee that day than the human system should be able to stand. You will introduce yourself, and then spend approximately two minutes talking about your book.
Then — brace yourself for this — the agent will respond to what you have said. Possibly even while you are saying it. Often, this entails asking you a few follow-up questions; you may feel free to ask questions about the agency or the market for your type of book as well.
At the end of the meeting, the agent will tell you whether your book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. NOT whether she liked it, mind you — whether she thinks she can SELL it.
You will be a much, much happier pitcher if you cling to that particular distinction like an unusually thirsty leech. When an agent or editor says, “Well, that’s not for me,” it is NOT always because the story is a bad one, or the pitch was incoherent (although pitch-hearers routinely hear both): it is very frequently because they don’t handle that type of book, or a similar book just bombed, or someone who can’t stand family sagas has just been promoted to publisher, or…
Getting the picture? Rejection is very seldom personal — at least from the point of view of the rejection-bestower.
Two things that will NOT happen under any circumstances, no matter how good your pitch is (or even your platform): the agent’s signing you on the spot, without reading your work, or an editor’s saying, “I will buy this book,” just on the strength of the pitch. If you walk into your pitch meeting expecting either of these outcomes — and scores of writers do — even a positive response is going to feel like a disappointment.
Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to your happiness: contrary to common writerly fantasy, no reputable agent will offer representation on a pitch alone. Nothing can be settled until she’s had a chance to see your writing. And no viable promise exists between a pitcher and an agent or editor until a contract is actually signed documenting it.
Don’t feel bad, even for a nanosecond, if you thought otherwise: the implied promise of instant success is the underlying logical fallacy of the verbal pitch. There are plenty of good writers who don’t describe their work well aloud, and even more who can speak well but do not write well.
The practice of verbal pitching is undermined by these twin facts — and yet conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are lead to believe that they will be discovered, signed by an agent, and lead off to publication fame and fortune after a simple spoken description of their books.
It just doesn’t work that way. The purpose of the pitch is NOT to induce a decision on the spot on the strength of the premise alone, but to get the agent to ask you to send pages so she can see what a good writer you are.
Period. Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: nice to be offered, of course, but not essential to provide a satisfying dessert to the pitching meal.
So I beg you, don’t set yourself up to be shattered: keep your expectations realistic. Professionally, what you really want to get out of this meeting is the cake, not the frosting.
Here is a realistic best-case scenario: if the agent is interested by your pitch, she will hand you her card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for NF, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.
MAIL is the operative term here. A request to see pages should not be construed as an invitation to HAND her the whole thing on the spot, even if you happen to have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet.
Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed rather than to carry them onto a plane. (If you think that your tome will not make a significant difference to the weight of a carry-on bag, try carrying a ream of paper in your shoulder bag for a few hours.)
Yes, I know: you have probably heard other pitching teachers — ones who got their agents a long time ago — urge you to lug around a couple of complete copies of your book. This is outdated advice. At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, she will have a few pages in mind, not 300.
In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about how flattered you are by her interest, and offer to pop anything she wants into the mail on Monday.
Regardless of the outcome, remember to thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away.) If this happens, express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work.
Those two minutes at the beginning of this process, the part when you are describing your book, of course, is the pitch proper. See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?
Apart from the fact that if you’re a novelist, your storytelling abilities are a big part of what you are trying to market here, there’s a logistical reason that agents tend to perk up when a story draws them in: at a conference that features many agents and editors, the pitching appointments are typically all in the same room. Sometimes, they are even at adjacent tables.
Thus, it is not beyond belief that you — and the agent sitting across the table from you — will be able to hear the other pitches and conversations. It’s easy for a hearer to get distracted, especially after pitch fatigue — the inevitable numbing effect on the mind of hearing many pitches over a short period of time — has started to set in.
So your goal is not merely to make the case that your book is a good one — it is to tell a story so original, in such interesting language, and with such great imagery that it will seem fresh in THAT environment.
Over the next couple of days, I am going to give you a template for doing just that. I know that this prospect is daunting, but believe me, you’re gaining the skills to pull this off beautifully.
Trust me on this one. Keep up the good work!