Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2014

Pitching Your Book

A lot of writing conferences these days offer authors and aspiring authors the opportunity to "pitch" their book to an agent or editor. A pitch is usually a one-line description of your book. You can think of it as cover copy or as an elevator or "movie pitch." Some people tend to use "x meets y" pitches, where you are trying to use high concepts that everyone will understand. For instance, "Jaws meets When Harry Met Sally" or "Pride and Prejudice meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind." But you don't have to refer to movies or any other books if you prefer not to. In fact, I think that the "x meets y" pitch is a bit hokey and would probably avoid it in favor of using a sentence in my own voice.

A couple of examples of ways to pitch a book:

I. The mirror from Snow White is the enchanted sister of the evil queen, on a quest to become human again (Mira, Mirror).

II. A prince born with the ability to speak to animals meets his betrothed princess for the first time and discovers that she has a hound who is the only animal the prince has met that he cannot speak to (The Princess and the Hound).

III. A Mormon bishop's wife makes cookies, offers to babysit for people in her ward, then rummages through their things, finds out their secrets, and solves crime (The Bishop's Wife).

IV. A retelling of Tristan and Isolde set in a modern American high school with a happy ending, and lots of humor (Tris and Izzie).

V. A fifth grader girl who still believes in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and magic is mercilessly teased by her friends until she meets her own fairy godmother (dressed as a janitor) in the school bathroom during recess (unpublished manuscript titled The Price of the Wand).

Hopefully, that makes it clear how to pitch. You don't tell the whole story. You tell the set-up of the story, the concept, and a little bit about character. It's like the first line in a query letter, without anything else. Trying to tell too much is probably the biggest mistake here. You're just trying to whet the appetite. Give an idea about genre (that's very important) and then the conflict that starts the ball rolling, the inciting incident, so to speak. That's it. The idea is to get people to ask for more, and then be able to give it to them.

You usually pay a little extra for this opportunity to pitch at a conference, and are given a certain number of minutes (5-10) alone in a room with said agent or editor. This can be a great chance to get to know an agent or editor personally, and it's also a way to get some feedback from the professional community without too much kindness involved. I'm not saying that you're going to get blasted. Most agents and editors who are involved in pitches know enough not to deliberately rant to your face. That said, they aren't your family, your critique group, or a paid consultant. They're going to give you as much of the truth as they can in a limited time. So I recommend pitch sessions with a few caveats.

1. Most authors are extremely nervous about pitching to a professional. If this is your first time pitching, it might be useful for you to write some notes for yourself. Write down the pitch and memorize it, but be flexible about the rest. It may serve you well to think of some questions you want to ask this particular agent or editor about the business, in addition to pitching. After all, if the agent or editor simply says, I'm not interested, what are you going to talk about for the rest of the time allotted? You're paying for full attention during this time. Use it. Some questions I would recommend are:

A - Can you tell me where you think the industry is headed right now?

B - What are you worried about in the industry right now?

C - What are the best three books that will be published this year in my genre?

D - What do you wish that authors knew more about in the industry?

E - What book do you wish you had represented/edited and why?

F - What do you think of Amazon and Barnes and Noble as industry leaders?

G - What do you think authors do that hurts their careers?

I could go on and on with these questions, but you get the idea.

2. Don't think of the pitch session as simply a "yes/no" kind of response. Just because this book doesn't sell under this particular pitch, that doesn't mean that you will never work with this editor or agent. And even if you don't, that doesn't mean that you won't be friends and have a valuable relationship. Try to be yourself as much as possible (as long as that doesn't include too much giggling or hemming and hawing). Be professional, but also be interesting.

3. Do some research. You don't have to be a stalker and have read every tweet or Facebook post or every online interview available about the agent or editor, but it will be a more useful session for you if you have some idea of the tastes of this person. Is the agent or editor interested in humor? In picture books? In adult sff? And more than that, get a few titles. If possible, read them. Don't bash them! (Please, whatever you do!) Find one that you liked and make sure that you know it well enough you could talk about what you liked about it. Make a connection. Make it possible for the agent or editor to remember you fondly.

4. Don't try to make yourself stand out in a stupid way, by dressing weirdly or by doing a weird theatrical introduction to your piece. Really, you are better off being professional. Think of this as an interview with a prospective employer. You can talk about things that might be on your resume, but don't overdo it. Have a conversation. Ask and answer in equal parts. Listen and be respectful.

5. Don't burn your bridges. You'd be surprised by how many people will hear "no" and then take that as license to blow up and start spewing hate. Say thank you to the editor or agent who has given you their time. Yes, you paid for it. Honestly, you didn't pay enough for it. Ask any agent or editor if they think it's worth their time in terms of how much they get paid and they will all say that's not why they do it. They want to find someone. They really do. And also, most of them are genuinely interested in helping authors. Believe me, they make more money sitting home and doing their regular work. Some of them aren't even getting the money you pay them directly. The conference organizers have paid a flat fee, and take the rest. So be kind, be polite. I wish I didn't feel the need to say this, but I do.

6. Realize that this is a chance for you to get used to hearing no. The most successful authors in the business hear it ten times as much as you do. It's not a reason to get angry. Failure is a chance to learn, not a chance to give up.

7. Bursting into tears in a situation like this isn't the best strategy. I am aware of the fact that some people really find it difficult not to take a "no" badly. It helps if you don't let so much hang on this answer. It isn't going to be your only chance or your last chance. It really isn't. I promise you! But bursting into tears is going to make it harder to use the rest of your time wisely in the room, and it will make the agent or editor feel horrible.

8. Keep your expectations super low. No, really. Lower than that. The chance that you will sell a book at a pitch session is negligible. Your chances of selling a manuscript from a query letter sent cold to an agent or editor are actually much, much better. That's because a query letter is going to have a lot more words, and will often include some pages of the manuscript. And because an agent or editor is going to feel less pressure and will be more comfortable in their own office while they read your letter.

Here are some links to other articles on pitching your book at a conference:




Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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