Aspiring writers come to conferences from all over the country–and even the world–hoping to get in an elevator with an agent and to give their “elevator pitch.” They pay to go to “pitch slam” or “pitchapalooza” sessions where they have 3-10 minutes to tell an agent or editor about their idea. They hope to leave with a card in hand and having heard an agent say,”Send me your proposal. I’m interested.” But there are lots of other times you might need a pitch, both written or spoken, for instance any time a potential reader or buyer asks, “What’s your book about?” You might also want to use one after this year’s Write Nonfiction in November challenge if you choose to write a book in 30 days. This year the challenge ends with a virtual pitch slam (and you could win a session with not one, but two, agents).
I’ve been involved in helping judge the San Francisco Writers Conference since 2007. I’ve heard a lot of pitches. I also read pitches weekly as I edit and consult on book proposals and query letters. (Yes, you use a pitch in written form in these documents as well.) So, let me tell you what I know coupled with what I learned from Chuck Sambuchino, an editor for Writer’s Digest Books (an imprint of F+W Media) and the editor of Guide to Literary Agents, when I heard him speak at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City as well as from James Scott Bell, author of Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books, and from Rob Eagar, author of Sell Your Book Like Wildfire: The Writer’s Guide to Marketing and Publicity, both of whom I heard speak at the Writer’s Digest Conference in LA.
Chuck says a pitch is basically your query letter memorized. We agree that for a three-minute pitch session your pitch should only take you about 60-90 seconds to say. Why? You need time to have a conversation with the agent or acquisitions editor. If you pitch takes up the whole three minutes, the agent or editor cannot ask you any questions. No dialogue? No request for materials.
To craft a pitch, I suggest writing a draft of 75 words or so. Then hone it down to something under 50 words. At the San Francisco Writers Conference, the rule used to be 25 words now it’s about 50 words. I like one great sentence, but that doesn’t always work.
There’s a huge difference in pitching fiction and nonfiction; memoir, while nonfiction, can be pitched more like fiction because it reads like a novel.
Nonfiction writers should focus a pitch on what the book is about, why it is unique, timely or needed and its benefits (the added value to readers). The rule of thumb is:
- Why this book?
- Why now?
- Why you?
Also, if you can include information on your market, unique features, or any comparison to another best-selling book, that’s great. Additionally, you want to let the agent or editor know what makes you an authority or expert on the topic and if you have a platform; this last part, says Chuck, can even be spoken about as if in bulleted form.
Fiction writers shouldn’t make the mistake that I see most often: telling the whole story. Just offer the narrative arc in the most creative way possible to hook the listener. Katharine Sands, agent and author of Making the Perfect Pitch: How To Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, who speaks at both conferences mentioned, says a pitch should “distill aspects of your work in such a way that it creates alchemy.” When pitching fiction, she says, include three elements:
- Place (setting)
- Person (who)
- Pivot (inciting incident or event)
I harp on the added value your book has to offer. In other words, think about the benefits you book will provide to readers. (Yes, even fiction benefits the reader in some way). That’s how I focused my pitch the year I won the San Francisco Writer’s Conference pitch contest, and that pitch was for fiction.
Chuck offered great advice for fiction writers. I’ll repeat it although most of my readers tend to be nonfiction writers. Follow this format step by step:
1. Tell the details first – genre, title, word count (if appropriate), if it is complete.
2. Offer a log line – one sentence (ex. A treasure hunter searches for a lost necklace in the Himalayas.)
3. Pitch using these 6 elements:
a. Introduce the main character(s).
b. Introduce something interesting or what he/she wants (or both).
c. Introduce the inciting incident (that moves the story forward).
d. Introduce the hook (plot)–in other words, say what the story is about or repeat the log line.
e. Explain the stakes, or complications (ex. innocent people die, they get lost).
f. Describe the unclear wrap up.
4. Describe how the character is changing – the character arc.
James Scott Bell offers another perspective on pitching, and says his formula can be used to create not only a pitch but content for the back cover of a book–really not too different since there you are also pitching to get someone to buy your book–this time a reader. His formula has three sentences.
Here’s Jim’s formula for nonfiction writers:
- Sentence 1: most gripping question + the specific answer
- Sentence 2: In [title of book] + you will learn…..
- Sentence 3: about the author (Who the hell are you?)
Here is Jim’s formula for fiction:
- Sentence 1: character name + vocation + initial situation.
- Sentence 2: when + the doorway of of no return (inciting incident)
- Sentence 3: now + death overhanging (physical, profession or psychological death)
Last, but certainly not least, Rob Eagar says, no matter what you do when pitching, do not answer the question “What is your book about,” when asked–at least not literally. No one gives a damn. What they really want to know is, “What’s in it for me?” So answer that question instead. That requires that you go back to my point about added value or benefit. Be sure when you pitch–fiction or nonfiction–you talk about at least three specific results your book can achieve for readers.
Out of all these tips, formulas and bits of advice, you should be able to craft a winning pitch–written or spoken. If you do, leave me a comment below and tell me about your success.