I dropped by a writers’ conference the other day — not to pitch, thank goodness, but to visit writer friends who don’t make it to my time zone very often. (One of the great advantages of spending years bopping around the conference circuit, taking some classes and teaching others, is that I have made friends with so many terrific writers all over the country.) And, lo and behold, before I had been conference-dedicated soil for an hour, I was coaching someone on how to pitch.
I know: out of character for me, eh?
I can’t seem to help myself these days — and not, I must confess, because I think that most of the pitch preparation information out there for writers, like the querying info was in the pre-Miss Snark era, is fairly cursory and often outdated. Hard as it may be to believe if you’re new to the pitch-constructing process, once you get the hang of it, it’s actually kind of amusing to come up with pitches for other people’s books. Like any other skill, it gets easier with practice.
Admittedly, it’s also much more fun when one is doing it recreationally, rather than professionally. (In case you need any additional incentive to get out there and pitch or query your book vigorously and often, I can safely say that one of the best things about having an agent is never having to pitch or query one’s own work again. It honestly is quite a relief.)
The timing of this impromptu coaching session was very apt, because it reminded me that I should address a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches.
The first, and one I have dealt with a bit before, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all. From an artistic perspective, the primary issue should be the quality of the writing, of course, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story.
Naturally, it comes as something of a shock to learn that one must make the case that this is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly, BEFORE anyone in the industry is willing to take a gander at the actual writing.
I know, I know: it seems backwards. As I believe I have mentioned before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers. If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I evidently still don’t — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would get thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it.
Being omniscient, I would naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. Heck, I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue. I would be THAT good.
But I do not, alas, run the universe, however, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry remain mysteries eternal. (Would it kill him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)
But I digress. The fact is, if a writer hopes to get published, the marketing step is a necessity, NO MATTER HOW TALENTED YOU ARE. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would need to approach many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work.
So please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were REALLY well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.
Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD. So it is a TEENY bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that you should be able to talk about your book in market-oriented terms as evidence that you are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.
You’re not, and they don’t. Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they HAVE to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering. They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.
Okay, MOST of them are not just being shallow. My point is, a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.
Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)
When we speak of marketing amongst ourselves, it’s with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.
That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process. But that doesn’t mean it is deadly to artistic integrity — and it doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.
That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.
But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. It will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly — and actually, it’s likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage. To an agent’s ears, such complaints tend to sound more like a lack of understanding of how books actually get published than well-founded critique of a genuinely difficult-to-navigate system.
Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really: they’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.
Yes, you read that correctly. Contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is NOT to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your WRITING, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ASK to see the written pages.
Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: No one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.
This may seem obvious, outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write.
It’s just not true — but by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.
Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.
I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now.”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing.
But it isn’t; it can’t be.
All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next on your list.
Does all of that that make you feel any better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it, at any rate, permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?
Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.
More tips on pitching follow next week, of course, but I’m going to be taking the next few days off. I wanted to make it through the bulk of the discussion of pitching before I took a break, but that fact is, I’ve been posting every day of a writing retreat. Which, I must admit, has somewhat mitigated this week’s effectiveness qua writing time.
I’ll be back on Tuesday, though, never fear, to post, answer questions, and generally hang out in our little community here. In the meantime, have a good Bastille day, everybody — ponder those pitches, and keep up the good work!