Yesterday, perhaps unwisely, I introduced those of you new to pitching appointments to the unique joys and stresses of a garden-variety pitching room. Why did I do such a thing? Well, I think it’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.
Why, you ask again? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things waiting for us on the other side of the pitching table. Like, for instance, a pitch meeting’s rocketing us to instant fame within the week, or an agent who says, “I hate your plot AND your tie!”
Please believe me when I say that in years and years and years of attending conferences as both would-be pitcher and presenter, I have not even heard of either of these extremes coming true in real life. Honest.
As I MAY have hinted a few times over the last couple of weeks, adhering to the common fantasies about what can happen in such meetings both raise expectations and increase fright. Knowledge really is power, at least in this instance. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively — and psych yourself out less in the process.
All of which is to say: if the prospect of pitch preparation appalls you, take heart, my friends — if you have been following this series step by step and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a persuasive formal pitch constructed.
How is that possible, you cry? Well, for starters, you’ve already wrestled some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching until they lay panting (June 20, 21, 24l July 6 and 9), gone over how to narrow down your book’s category (June 26-27), figured out who your target market is (June 27-28), brainstormed selling points for your book (June 29-July 1) and a platform for you (June 19, July 1, July 6), and constructed a snappy keynote statement (July 1-2). We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words (July 2), to keep it pithy with the elevator speech (July 3-6), and to take advantage of the happy accidents chance may provide with a hallway pitch (July 7-8).
Today, with all that under your proverbial belt, we’re going to begin to pull it all together into a two-pronged strategy for a stellar formal pitch: first, you’re going to impress ’em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ’em with your storytelling ability.
Piece o’ cake, right?
Actually, it’s a heck of a lot easier than it sounds, once you understand what a formal pitch is and what you’re trying to achieve with it. To that end, I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book, nor is it a summary of the plot, or even a statement of what the platform is for a NF books.
A formal book pitch is A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also precisely how and why it is MARKETABLE.
Once you understand this — and once you accept that, within a publishing context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET FOR YOU — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch is a much, much less frightening moment to contemplate. It’s not an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed BOOK CONCEPT.
Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not.
What a formal pitch can and should be, then, is the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would.
Why, what a coincidence: if you will be so kind as to cast your eye back over my breakdown of this series above, you will see that you have already defined your work in those terms.
Really, you’re almost there. If it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional short pitch from these elements alone.
Oh, wait, here is another remarkable coincidence: you already have. It’s called your hallway pitch (July 7-8), which I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound have already begun practicing on everyone you meet.
Out comes the broken record again: it takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a writer talking to other writers. When we’re in creative mode, we speak amongst ourselves about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer?
But when we’re in marketing mode, as in a formal pitch meeting, it’s time to put aside those complicated and fascinating aspects of the creative process, and talk about the book in terms the non-creative business side of the industry can understand.
It’s time, to put it bluntly, to speak of your book as a commodity that you might conceivably want someone to buy.
Recognizing that is not the first sign of selling out, as so many aspiring writers seem to believe: it’s a necessary step along the undiscovered (and unpaid) artist’s road to fame, fortune, and large readerships. Or even small ones.
My point is, walking into a conference believing that agencies and publishing houses are primarily institutions devoted to the charitable promotion of good art tends to lead to poor pitching. A savvy pitcher understands that good marketing and good art can are not natural enemies.
How might one go about satisfying the demands of both in a formal pitch meeting? I’m so glad you asked. I feel a theoretical structure about to emerge.
Step I: First, you would begin with the magic first hundred words:
“Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”
As in a query letter, if you can work in a flattering reference to a specific past project upon which the agent or editor has labored, even if it’s not in your genre, just after your name is a great place to do it. As in,
“Hi, my name is J.K. Rowling, and I got so excited when you said on the agents’ panel earlier that you are looking for YA books where children solve their problems without adult information! That sounds like a jacket blurb for my novel. My latest project, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is middle-grade fiction aimed at kids who feel like outsiders. See how it grabs you…”
If you are pitching nonfiction, this is the step where you will want to mention your platform. For example,
“Hi, my name is Bill Clinton, and I used to be President of the United States. I write political books, buidling upon that expertise. My latest project…”
Step II: After you finish Step I, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into an extended version of your elevator speech, one that introduces the protagonist, shows the essential conflict, and gives a sense of the dramatic arc. The resulting equation would look like this:
“(Protagonist) is in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.
Again, do NOT tell the entire plot: your goal here, remember, is to get your hearer to ask to read the book you’re pitching, not to convey the plot in such detail that your hearer feels he’s already read it.
Remember, make sure to identify your protagonist — by name, never as “my protagonist” — in the first line. It’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Introduce her as an active struggler in the conflict, rather than a passive victim of it.
(And if you don’t know why a story about a passive protagonist is usually harder to sell than one about her more active cousin, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category at right before your next pitch appointment.)
Step III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell to your intended readership.
If you have demographic information about that target market, or a comparison to a similar book released within the last five years that has sold very well, this is the time to mention it:
“I’m excited about this project, because of its (SELLING POINTS). Currently, there are # (TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”
And that, my friends, is how I like to give a pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.
Now, you could manage those three steps in two minutes, right?
Of course you could: with aplomb, with dignity. Because, really, all you are doing here is talking about the work you love, telling your favorite story, in the language that agents and editors speak.
It’s perfectly all right to walk into a meeting with these steps written on an index card or piece of paper; if you remember to look up occasionally, no one will fault you for reading your pitch, rather than blurting it out from memory. That way, you will be sure to hit all of those important points.
And to include each and every memorable detail.
One last thing, then I shall let you run off to ponder what details you would like to append to your elevator speech to render it even more memorable:
Step IV: once you have gone through all of the steps above, SHUT UP and let your hearer get a word in edgewise.
Most pitchers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material. Or even after the agent or editor has said, “Great; send me the first chapter.”
Don’t keep trying to sell your book; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.
It’s in your self-interest, you know. If even you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is likely to fall flat if you don’t leave time for your listener to cry, â€œBut what happened NEXT?”
A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more — and a good salesperson knows when to take yes for an answer.
Most of us have been turned off by a too-hard sell in other contexts, right? If your primary concern in choosing a vehicle is the gas mileage, you’re going to start to feel impatient if the car dealer keeps rattling off details about how many bags of groceries you could fit in the trunk.
Besides, by rambling, you’ll be missing out on a golden opportunity to demonstrate what a good listener you are. Remember, you’re not only trying to convince the agent or editor that your book is well-written and interesting — you’re also, if you’re smart (and I know you are), attempting to convey that you’d be an absolute dream to work with if they signed you.
I don’t know why this point so seldom comes up in pitching classes or in agent and editor Q&As at conferences, but being a considerate, careful listener is a definite selling point for a writer. So is the ability to ask thoughtful questions and an understanding that agents and editors in fact have jobs that are extraordinarily difficult to do well.
Treating them with respect during your pitch session will go a long way toward demonstrating that you have been working those delightful skills.
Why, there’s yet another coincidence: if you’ve been following this series from the very beginning, you have been building the knowledge base to handle your pitch encounters as professional meetings, not as Hail Mary shots at a nearly impossible target to hit. You’ve done your homework about the people to whom you are intending to pitch (or query), so you may speak to them intelligently about their work; you have performed a little market research, so you may discuss your target market and sales trends for your type of book; you have figured out why people out there will want to buy your book and no other.
Okay, you’ve caught me: I’ve been pursuing a dual agenda here. I’ve not only been helping you prepare to pitch, but I’ve been pushing you to develop the skills that will make you a great client for an agency and a wonderful writer for a publishing house.
Call me zany, but I like win-win outcomes.
Tomorrow, I shall tackle how to track down those vivid little details that will make your pitch spring to life. In the meantime, keep up the good work!