No, I didn’t pose that pigeon; she volunteered to be today’s illustration of a book happily inhabiting a niche market atop a well-constructed pitch. It would be a better illustration if there weren’t also bricks above her, of course, but you focus on a medieval bridge, you take your chances, right?
Last time, perhaps unwisely, I introduced those of you brand-new to pitching appointments to the unique joys and stresses of a garden-variety pitching room. Why on earth would a sane person do such a thing, you ask? 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, your hairdo, 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 (July 14-16; August 10, gone over how to narrow down your book’s category (July 17, 20, 21), figured out who your target market is (July 21-23), brainstormed selling points for your book (July 23 and 27; August 5) and a platform for you (July 20-22; August 4), and constructed a snappy keynote statement (July 27). We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words (July 28), to keep it pithy with the elevator speech (July 29-August 4), and to take advantage of the happy accidents chance may provide with a hallway pitch (August 6-7).
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 the platform for a NF book.
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. And your hair is fine, I tell you.
What a formal pitch can and should be 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. Clever you, to be so prepared.
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 (August 6-7), 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.
Why shouldn’t you talk about your work to the pros the way we talk about amongst ourselves? Well, when we’re in creative mode, we speak with other writers 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 an absolutely necessary step along the undiscovered (and unpaid) artist’s road to fame, fortune, and large readerships. Or even small ones.
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, 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, building upon that expertise. My latest project…”
Everyone on board with that? Good. Let’s press ahead.
Step II: After you finish Step I, with nary a pause for breath, 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 or argument of the book. 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.
Make sure to identify your protagonist — by name, never as “my protagonist” — in the first line. Yes, yes, I know that you learned in English class that it’s spiffy to speak in terms of protagonists and antagonists, as well as to say things like, “At the climax of the book…”, but a verbal pitch is the wrong context to talk about a book as if you were writing an essay about it. It’s distancing, and many pros find it more than a bit pretentious. (True in query letters as well, by the way.)
Here’s an even better reason to identify your protagonist by name: 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).”
Voilà : the two-minute 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.
I see some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some confused souls point out, “didn’t you say that most scheduled pitch meetings are around 10 minutes long? If that’s the case, why do I have to limit myself to a 2-minute pitch? Couldn’t it be, you know, 3? Or 8?”
Good question, oh confused ones, and here’s the answer: no, because if you went over, there would not be time for subsequent conversation. Or for the agent of your dreams to interrupt you in the course of your speech in order to ask trenchant and enlightening questions.
Or to allow for time for panicking pitchers to take a moment to compose themselves. Aspiring writers aren’t tape recorders, you know, and most agents and editors honestly do want to give ‘em a chance to give their pitches.
So if you will harken back to the description of the average pitch meeting in Monday’s post, the 2-minute pitch usually takes place at the beginning of a pitch meeting. See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?
No? Was there so much going on my account on Monday and above that you forgot to look for a moral hidden in the midst of it all?
Excellent, if so — because that IS the moral: there’s going to be so much going on during your pitch appointment that it’s going to be darned difficult to make even the most elegant story sound fresh and pithy.
Especially if you find yourself, as so many pitchers do, having a meeting under ear-splitting conditions. Remember, a high probability 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.
Heck, you may find it hard to concentrate on your storyline — and you won’t even be the one who has already heard fifty pitches that day. Counterintuitive as it may seem, buttonholing an agent at a crowded luncheon or after a well-attended seminar for a hallway pitch is often a QUIETER option than giving a 2-minute pitch during a scheduled appointment.
Sad but true, conference organizers are not typically trying to weed out the shy, the agoraphobic, and the noise-sensitive — although that is often the effect of a well-stocked pitching room. It’s just that space is often at a premium at a literary conference — and many conference centers have really lousy acoustics.
Or really good acoustics, depending upon how badly you want to hear the pitcher 20 feet away from you describe his thriller.
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 a pitching environment. (Equally true for fiction and nonfiction, by the way.)
In a frequently chaotic-feeling pitching situation, including vivid, surprising details is the best way I know for a good storyteller to make an exhausted agent sit up and say, “Wait a minute — I’ve never heard a tale like THAT before!”
Does this advice seem just a TOUCH familiar? It should — it’s that old saw show, don’t tell, transplanted off the page and into the pitching environment. The essence of good storytelling, after all, is evocative specifics, not one-size-fits-all generalities. The higher the ratio of one-of-a-kind details to summary in your pitch, the greater the probability of its being memorable.
A forest of hands just shot up in the air again. “But Anne,” some of these wavers protest, “I’m likely to be too nervous to remember the name of my book during my pitch meeting, much less any brilliantly vivid and pithy details I might have thought up in the solitude of my quiet room. Isn’t it just a touch unreasonable to expect me to be able to blurt ‘em out on command?”
Not really — as long as you don’t rely solely on your memory to help you through. There’s no earthly reason not to write out your 2-minute pitch on an index card or piece of paper and have it in front of you throughout the meeting. As I mentioned last time, reading a formal pitch is completely acceptable; 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.
And no, you will not get Brownie points for reciting it from memory. This isn’t your 5th grade class’ Americana pageant, and this isn’t the Gettysburg Address — which, incidentally, Abraham Lincoln was too experienced a public speaker to attempt to give from memory.
Actually, at 267 words, the Gettysburg Address is a pretty good length guideline for a formal pitch. It’s also proof positive that it is indeed possible to work expressive language and strong imagery into a 2-minute speech:
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Great speech, eh? Ever heard the story about why it’s so short? It wasn’t that Lincoln didn’t have a lot to say — he was scheduled to speak immediately after one of the greatest of living orators, Edward Everett. His light-hearted little lecture lasted for two solid hours.
Who could compete? Lincoln knew better. Rather than fight fire with fire, he did one of the smartest things someone making a speech can do if he wants to be remembered fondly by his hearers: he made his point, and then he stopped talking.
In memory of that excellent strategic choice, let’s add another step to our formula for a formal pitch:
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, “But 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.
Next time, 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!