Imagine yourself riding in the elevator at a hotel where you are attending a writer’s conference. The door opens and in steps the one agent you really, really think would serve as the perfect literary representative for you and your book. You open your mouth, introduce yourself and begin to speak.
What do you say? Do you tell the agent what your book is about in 25 word or less? Do you spit out the plot or the main idea in 30 seconds, or before the elevator doors open again and someone else steps in and begins their pitch? Do you offer your pitch in an interesting, dynamic way that makes the agent say, “Tell me more” or do you offer a long-winded, pointless speech that quickly loses the agents attention and your chance at representation – not to mention publication of your book?
Ah, the art of the book pitch.
Finding yourself in that elevator represents every writer’s dream…and nightmare…depending upon whether or not they have prepared a fabulous pitch or not.
What’s a pitch? It’s what people in other areas of business call an “elevator speech,” a short speech you have ready for that opportune moment – or less than a moment – when you can market yourself or your product to someone that might buy it. That speech, however, has to include all the pertinent information and be interesting, clever, thought provoking, or in some way leading so the person becomes inclined to ask you for more details.
I don’t know that I’m so great at composing pitches for my own nonfiction books. However, at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference two years ago, I won the pitch contest for a novel I had written. (I normally write only nonfiction.) For that reason, this year I was asked to sit on a panel of much-more-distinguished judges-than-myself at the conference’s yearly pitch contest. I listened with interest to the pitches, as well as to the feedback from the other judges. I noticed that no one really had mastered the “art” of pitching, and many people were confused about how to pitch in person as opposed to how to pitch in a query letter. While my fellow judge, Katharine Sands, who wrote Making the Perfect Pitch, How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, didn’t agree that a difference existed between these two pitching methods, Mike Larsen, another judge and the author of How to Get a Literary Agent, agreed with me.
In my experience, anyway, when you find yourself seated next to an agent or an acquisitions editor at a conference, or you find yourself in the elevator with them or getting a drink at the bar just as they are doing the same, you aren’t suddenly going to start painting a long, pretty picture that describes your book before you actually say, “Hi, my name is Nina Amir, and my book, Blah Blah, is about blah blah blah blah.” More than likely, you are going to introduce yourself and say, “I’d love to tell you about my book, Blah Blah. It about blah blah blah…” or “it teaches people how to blah blah blah.”
During the San Francisco Writers Conference, many writers participate in “Speed Dating for Agents.” This event gives them just three minutes with an agent. In that time, they must pitch their book and then, hopefully, get the agent to say, “Tell me more,” so they end up in a conversation that ends with a request to see a proposal. Again, I doubt they will feel comfortable – and I know they don’t have the time – to sit down and do a long pitch. If they do, they will not allow the agent time to ask questions. They want to leave time for feedback and for a discussion and, finally, for the agent to say, “Send me a proposal.”
So, how does a writer come up with a decent pitch? (You would think it would be easy; its just crafting words into a short, pithy sentence.) As I said, despite my one “win,” I don’t find it so easy myself – at least with my own work. It’s easier to help other people with their ideas. And I do this by applying some of the things I learned that helped me win that contest.
Prior to winning, I attended a session at the very same conference led by Teresa LeYung Ryan, author of Love Made of Heart, and Elisa Southard, author of Break Through the Noise. They were teaching people how to pitch both fiction and nonfiction. The one thing I took away from that session was to make sure my pitch told the listener what my book would offer a reader. In other words, what was the benefit they would get out of reading my book? Would they gain something, lose something, learn something, improve something…You get the idea.
With nonfiction, this can be pretty easy. Take a book like Wayne Dyer’s book, Manifest Your Destiny. His subtitle is a great pitch. His book teaches you “nine spiritual principles for getting everything you want.”
Fiction can be a bit harder (which is why I was so surprised to win the contest for fiction). Here’s my pitch: Turtle’s Nest is about a woman who accidentally poisons her son and learns she doesn’t have to be a perfect parent to be a good mother. A little more subtle, but it still tells you what you’ll learn by reading it – the same thing the main character learns.
Also, the pitch contest at the San Francisco Writers Conference requires that pitches be 25 words or less. While Mike Larsen says that is a “mindset,” the year I won it was an actual requirement. I suggest you stick close to that word count.
I remember someone once telling me that if I couldn’t say what my book was about in 10 words or less, I didn’t know what it was about. Someone else once said I had to be able to write what my book was about on the back of a business card.
In other words, don’t be wordy. If you have 30 seconds with an agent or three minutes, you don’t want to do all the talking. You want to get your message across and then hear what they have to say.
While working with writers at the conference, together we dug pitches out of their long descriptions of their manuscripts. As they talked and talked, we weeded out the best parts of what they said and then crafted those into the most perfect descriptive phrase possible. We had to work hard and long. And sometimes we went back to those pitches the next day and changed them again. We had to be stringent editors keeping to work count restrictions and creative writers turning a phrase and finding the perfect words to depict story, character, purpose, and meaning. And sometimes the writers asked other people for assistance; and sometimes that helped and sometimes it didn’t.
Once each writer had that pitch, they had to practice it. For a pitch to be really effective, it has to flow off your tongue as easily as words off a pen and onto your paper or off a keyboard onto your computer screen. Have it memorized. Know it by rote, but deliver it with passion and conviction. And be prepared to offer at least three talking points when, indeed, you are asked for more information.
Writing pitches isn’t easy. Although sometimes they just come to you, like those magical words that arrive on your manuscript pages, and you wonder how they arrived. But the perfect pitch is miraculous in its own right. While it might not sell your book or land you that agent, it will at least get an agent or an acquisitions editor to listen long enough and become interested enough to say, “Tell me more.” And that’s your opening to offer your three more points…and then three more…And you never know where that might lead.