A Pitch is Still a Pitch

Casablanca kissWhen you hone your subject into a great pitch, you know what your book is about—and you can communicate that in a query letter or aloud. Pitchcraft™  is an invaluable tool—not just for landing an agent but for selling books. In this guest post, agent Katharine Sands, who coined the term, answers an important question for aspiring and published authors: What’s the difference between a written and verbal pitch? NA

To e-query, or not to e-query, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The zings and arrows of agent feedback
Or to take pains and angst a sea of e-mails
And by proposing, send them?

This question, pondered by William Shakespeare—unless, you’ve seen the movie, Anonymous, and now wonder about that fact, may be paraphrased (with apologies to the Bard, and his fan base), but surely writers have always had plenty to muse about when it comes to creativity versus commerce. And today, writers have similar concerns, with both age-old and brand-new questions about how to best tilt at these windmills (as Cervantes might have put it). Writers ask how to catch literary agents’ eyes—but also their ears. If your own wish is to sign with a literary agent, this raises binders full of query questions. (No apology to president-reject Romney).

At the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, a glorious weekend of workshops that takes place in February and takes over the Mark Hopkins Hotel, literary agents and industry professionals summit to give talks on a variety of publishing topics, I first met Nina Amir.  During a pitch contest headed by Mike Larsen questions came up about pitching for the conference’s popular speed dating day and for the page. Are on-page elements and in-person aspects of the pitch different, or not? A kiss is still a kiss (in the Casablanca theme song, As Time Goes By); but, is a pitch still a pitch?

So what is the difference between the in-person or elevator pitch and the query letter for the nonfiction writer? The pitch, now synonymous with query, was once the province of Hollywood, often comic when depicted by huckster-y ad guys (think Mad Men). It has morphed into the umbrella term meaning proposing and introducing your concept for a book; now it is used universally for the most lofty and serious projects along with the most commercial. Why? Because your pitch must succeed to get you read, and represented, long before you can get a deal, movie, a product line, and a corner table at Spago.

In person or on paper your pitch has the same job to do: to get you to the next rung. On paper, you have your words, the ones you hone and choose and select. The reader sees how you write. In person there is more of YOU to consider, as poster-girl or go-to guy for this kind of book. On paper You convey; in person You display. Sometimes the most effective in-person pitch could be you walking your talk, just being yourself, as your mama used to say. A great example of this can be found in the client I discovered on the ladies’ room line. The writer did not corner me with her pitch, or pass an opus under the door. We were just chatting. As the line snaked, I found myself taken with her articulate and humorous approach to her life, work and topical acumen and activism, all of which intersected….so much so that by the time we were lathering up at the sinks, I was lathering to read her writing, with more than a sneaking suspicion I would undertake—and sell—this book. And so I did. Please note: I am not encouraging this as the better option than the elevator for pitching to an agent.

Whether meeting with you or reading your pitch letter agents are always on a treasure hunt. No matter if they meet you in-person or on the printed page, something must pop. Agent Regina Brooks, author of You Should Really Write a Book, calls this jolt of recognition a “kinetic crackle.” My dowser rod starts to hum when I come across an author-to-be. For me to undertake a new client I have to know that I want to have 110 conversations about their project. What we hope is for a moment of discovery, a Eureka feeling…electricity…sparks. We want to know more, much more.

Or, we do not. Internet-dates speak woefully of being captivated in the cyber world only to deflate once they meet in the real one. Same holds true for agent speed-dates in search of Mr./Ms. Write. Chemistry counts.

What do we talk about when we talk about the on-page and the in-person pitch? And what should you talk about? Remember, as an author you are always going to be asked to introduce your work, to share your enthusiasm for your writing, and to get others excited about what is exciting to you. “What is your book about” or “Tell me about your work” means: The 15 minutes of fame is yours to shine in. Use the time before the agent in any way you feel gives them the best insight into what you would like to accomplish by sharing your writing with readers.

Do’s and Don’ts

I surveyed a group of agents and asked: When a writer pitches on paper or in person, do you look at the project differently, would you say there are things not to do in person? Here are their answers:

Says Paul Lucas of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, “My main advice to writers is that they think of any pitch, on page or in person, as performative: It needs to fly off the page, regardless of whether you’re there to deliver it personally. So read those queries out loud to friends before sending them. And when that opportunity to trap an agent in an elevator materializes, be prepared to entice him quickly! You may not have more than 2-3 sentences; don’t waste them describing the opening or summarizing the plot. Make that in-person pitch a simulacra of your amazing book.”

Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management replied, “The clearest difference is that authors are often so nervous meeting an agent in person that it gets in the way of everything. The main thing an author shoulddo is realize an in-person pitch is not an audience with Her Majesty. It’s talking to a potential fan of your work. Be as natural as possible. Don’t memorize a “pitch” even as you would not memorize “hello, nice to meet you” at a party. Simply tell me what your book is about and then stop talking. Let me ask some questions. But mostly, try to relax. No writer was ever eaten by an agent. Not even agents who are sharks.”

Agent Sheree Bykofsky of Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Inc., author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published, shares, “I would say, don’t read or recite your memorized written words. Speak naturally and slowly and from your heart. Answer the following questions before they are asked: Why is this a good and viable project? Who is the audience? And why are you the best author to write this?”

Brooks Sherman of FinePrint Literary Management says: “I think the in-person pitch and the on-paper pitch are two different animals. If you recite your written pitch aloud, it sounds dead; and if you write your pitch the way you’d tell it, it might come off too informal. When pitching in person, I’d recommend looking at your written pitch, finding the two or three buzz words or terms you want to hit on, and find a way to incorporate those into your speech. Also, don’t make it a monologue—if I like your pitch, I’m going to interrupt to ask questions, so be prepared for a conversation.

“I like to hear a writer talk about their work with excitement—which can be hard to do if you’re reciting your pitch verbatim from how you wrote it,” adds Sherman.  “Just tell me the coolest thing about your project, and when I see your eyes light up, I’ll get excited too.”

“Always look the agent in the eye as you pitch—if you must read your pitch, fine, but say so up front, and then plan on a sincere and impromptu interchange at the end. Eye contact goes a long way to establishing a personal connection,” says April Eberhardt of April Eberhardt Literary.

Marisa A. Corvisiero of Corvisiero Literary Agency offers this advice: “Good querying is about thorough research, attention to detail and a good story. Of course the writing speaks for itself, but the query format is different, and it’s important to provide the information that agents need to consider the author’s work. It is almost as if queries require an additional skill altogether. It’s the skill to sell…to make things sound good in addition to the normal etiquette that the query requires.”

Be Prepared for Questions

The in-person pitch meeting also gives you the chance to ask questions.

3 Key questions to ask an agent:
  1. Does my book idea feel fresh enough? If yes, what in particular do you like? If no, what seems too generic?
  2. What is my most interesting point? Which area needs the most work? What would make this stand out?
  3. What was the first red flag, or reason that would prevent you from wanting to read—and represent—me?
Your pitch will succeed if you:
  • Use the pitch to deliver enough of the flavor of the book to whet the reader’s appetite for more.
  • Show what we can learn from you about how to handle this life problem or challenge. Tell us: What do I do differently after I read your book, what could I not figure out without you? Show how much texture, how much scope there is to the subject. What are three quick tips or hints of the “practical and prescriptive” advice to come?
  • Speak about a topic or nonfiction subject or memoir showcasing the groundbreaking, or new, focus you can encapsulate and state clearly.
  • Keep calm and carry on even—if it appears the agent is getting glassy eyed, eyeing the bar, or squirming as if her buttock or her foot has fallen asleep.
Your pitch will fail if you:
  • Don’t leave home with a “money shot,” a clear, core point about why this book will find readers.
  • Ramble, or use many prefaces or qualifiers.
  • Rely on reviews or references from gurus, editor feedback, or spousal support.

The practice of Pitchcraft, writing about your writing and speaking about your writing, is every bit as important as the writing itself. You want to put as much passion, attention, savvy, and as much crafting into your pitch—as you do your project.

If the pitch had been the thing, Shakespeare might have summed up thus:

…To write, to weep
No more; for by a successful pitch, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural knocks
That pitch is heir to. ‘Tis representation devoutly to be wished.

About the Author

A literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Katharine Sands has worked with a varied list of authors who publish a diverse array of books. Highlights include Spiritual Pregnancy: Nine Months that Change Your Life Before You Give Birth by Dr. Shawn Tassone and Dr. Kathryn Landherr; Talk to Strangers: How Everyday Random Encounters Can Expand Your Business, Career, Income and Life by David Topus; The New Rules of Attraction: How to Get Him, Keep Him and Make Him Beg for More by Arden Leigh; Stand Up for Yourself: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards by Donna Ballman; Making Healthy EZ with Dr. Oz guest, Dr. Julie Chen; Dating the Devil (producer: Vast Entertainment) by Lia Romeo; XTC: SongStories; Chasing Zebras: THE Unofficial Guide to House, MD by Barbara Barnett of Let’s Talk TV; CityTripping: a Guide for Foodies, Fashionistas and the Generally Style-Obsessed; Writers on Directors; Ford model Helen Lee’s The Tao of Beauty; Elvis and You: Your Guide to the Pleasures of Being an Elvis Fan; New York: Songs of the City; Taxpertise: Dirty Little Secrets the  IRS Doesn’t Want You to Know; The SAT Word Slam, Divorce After 50; Trust Your Gut; Make Up, Don’t Break Up with Oprah guest Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil to name a few.

She is the agent provocateur of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, a collection of pitching wisdom from leading literary agents. Recently contributed “Grey is the New Black” to Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, a nonfiction look at the cultural phenom of the bestselling novel.

Actively building her client list, she likes books that have a clear benefit for readers’ lives in categories of food, travel, lifestyle, home arts, beauty, wisdom, relationships, parenting, and fresh looks, which might be at issues, life challenges or popular culture. When reading fiction she wants to be compelled and propelled by urgent storytelling, and hooked by characters. For memoir and femoir, she likes to be transported to a world rarely or newly observed. katharinesands@nyc.rr.com

Photo credit: wikimedia.org

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