(Note: The following was written by Sally Moore.)
The Wonder and Terror of Pitching
The experience of pitching to a real-live, flesh-and-blood editor is a wonderful and nerve-wracking one. First, you have to be fortunate enough to garner a few precious moments of this elusive creature’s time. Editors and agents are insanely busy people, and they hear pitches everywhere they go. So, a writer’s best bet in getting an editor’s attention is to be prepared.
Some golden rules:
- If your pitch is by appointment, be on time.
- Your appearance matters so be professional. Try to present yourself as an author this editor would like to work with. Dress like you would at a book signing—but never dress in costume, whatever your genre.
- Use plain language, sentences that are to the point, and avoid “marketing speak.” A pitch is two people having a discussion, not a try-out for Hamlet.
- Cover the basics: tell the editor or agent what’s different about your story, who it’s about, and who you think will read it.
- Don’t use superlatives or tell them their business, and don’t talk money. Yours is not the greatest story ever told; their careers don’t depend on your book; and you are nowhere near talking about what they might pay for it.
- Don’t have your manuscript with you. If they love it you can send the ms later.
- Follow up! You’d be surprised how many authors get an “okay, I’d like to see the piece” and don’t send the manuscript for years. Remember, though, that sending it late is better than sending it before it’s ready, but make sure you let the editor know it isn’t finished before you pitch.
What are the Basics?
Quite simply, the basics are who, what, where, when and how. You can decide which of those to lead with, but in general who is very important. Writers often get into what or where—extolling on their research or the setting— and forget to talk about who their protagonist is and why he or she is likeable or challenging. Characters are the reason people read books. They might buy it because the setting interests them, but if the character grabs them, is relatable, is fascinating, then you’ve got a real page-turner, and the editor or agent will see that.
So, you’ve made the pitch … now what?
Be open to suggestions. Writers often become intractable at the smallest suggestion that they change their work. The editor might say, “I like the characters and the story, but this setting isn’t selling right now.” Instead of saying, “well that’s the whole point of this book, I’m not changing that,” which is a conversation-closer, try saying, “that’s interesting, what setting do you think might work?” Then you’ve opened a discussion, and whether you can change this particular story or not is not important, so long as the discussion continues.
Editors can also be frustrated by writers who won’t listen to them on points about which they are well versed, leading to a premature rejection. For instance, they might make a comment on where the story isn’t working or how the content is too focussed on one narrow market that is hard to access. Consider making a few changes when they ask, or trying something they suggest. It may work, it may not, but the key is to keep the conversation going. Remember that your goal is to get them to look at your submission. A pitch leads to a submission leads to a request for full ms. It’s hard to get there, but rising above the noise and the daunting size of a slush pile is what a face-to-face pitch is all about.
To Rise Above the Slush Pile
Pitches are key because they make writers people and not just words on a page. They are a chance—usually five- to fifteen-minutes’ worth—to make stories and characters come alive to a publishing professional. Gold. Writers should pitch whenever they have a chance, whether that’s at a conference, through a writing group like the WCDR, or at a book launch. But remember that it’s not really a sales pitch. You don’t want them to buy your book—yet. You want them to be interested in your work and in working with you as an artist and business person. You want them to ask for a submission.
The Goal: A Saleable Work
My historical fiction novel went through several successful pitches followed by interest, but no contract. Finally, an agent showed real interest, and worked with me to turn it into a saleable project. The discussions were long and complex, and there was a lot of negotiation on plot and character. I took every suggestion and worked with it until I was comfortable, rejected a few key ones, but found that most of them improved the work. One major element of the discussion was genre. The book wasn’t traditional historical fiction, but wasn’t fantasy, either. We finally decided it would be a cross-over and I worked on the rewrite on that basis. But as I wrote from a new outline, a fantasy element emerged quite naturally that I realized I’d been resisting. The agent sensed that and wisely encouraged me to embrace it. Listening in that initial pitch led to a relationship in the submission and rewrite process that led to a whole new revelation in my work, and hopefully a wider audience as well.
‘Plan B’ Might be Murder
It’s always best to have a plan B. I once pitched an agent who I thought would like my contemporary drama, but when he found out there was no murder in it, he asked, “What else have you got?” So, I pitched my historical fiction, and we spent the rest of the time talking about what could be done with the project. That later resulted in a submission and a rewrite, and after reviewing my full ms for the second time, he said yes!
His comment on my drama was helpful, though. I had my other novel professionally edited and sent it to a small Canadian press who accepted the submission in two weeks and asked for the full ms.
Every Opportunity is Pitch Perfect
Pitch sessions are about opportunities to learn about your work and your market, as well as to gain valuable advice about writing and publishing. Each pitch, one-on-one, conference, seminar, workshop, submission, discussion, retreat… is a stepping stone taking you closer to that all-important “yes.” Learning to pitch well will advance you to the next stone in the process, so every pitch is a good pitch. There is always something to take away from it: what you did right; what could have been more compelling; what you could add or leave out; how the editor reacted; what the agent told you about the market, the business, your story; what telling questions were asked. It’s all about making connections—with the editor and agent, your book and the market, your characters and your themes. Every scrap of understanding can help you reach the next step in your journey, and that’s what pitching is all about!