How to Pitch a Book

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Thanks to bensound.com for our intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: From James Earls via aarongansky.com: Is there a rule or some kind of guideline for chapter titles. Are they necessary? I’ve seen it go both ways but I’ve never been sure with whether there was a rule or writer’s prerogative. Considering I do my own editing and then I’m never sure about having just numbers or titles or both and when to and when not to to use titles. Your dad seems to use both. I’ve been tilting both ways and I’m just not sure. Is there one true answer to all of this or again the writer’s preference.

AARON: The answer to this question really varies. Usually, it’s up to the writer. I also think there’s a difference between fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction generally will use chapter titles (if it’s a topical or expository book). Memoirs and other creative nonfiction may not. Children’s books, I’ve noticed, often have chapter titles. Other books, not so much. I think it’s important to be consistent. With The Bargain, I alternated between first person POV and third (for the stories Connor wrote). I used chapter titles for his articles to help orient the reader that they were no longer reading the “present action” of the story. However, for most traditional books, you’ll want to be consistent. If you want to title your chapters, go for it. If not, then just number them. Try not to mix both without having just cause, so to speak. Pops–you ever have publishers ask for chapter titles?

POPS: It’s usually a writer’s choice. I’m not aware of any rules one way or the other. A publisher may have a preference but usually it is the writer’s call. I just finished the last of the Harbingers series and I’m the only one of the four authors to use chapter titles. I outline those novellas and chapter titles help me do that. It also fit the kind of stories I was writing. Often, however, I don’t use titles. I’ve never had a publisher ask for or reject chapter titles.  

Firsts in Fiction

How to Pitch a Book

Spring and summer are hot times (hahaha) for writers’ conferences. If you’re like us, you’re gearing up to attend one this year. But if you’re going to shell out dollars to attend these conferences, you’ll want to be sure you’re ready to go, prepared to get the biggest bang for your buck. Of course, you’ll want to do your research, target what classes you’ll take, who you’ll network with, and of course, what project you’re going to pitch. Both Alton and Aaron have sat on both sides of the pitch table–as writers and as editors. Molly’s sat at several pitch tables herself. Here are some tips and tricks, as well as examples of how to do it well.

The basics:

  • Be ready to go. You’ll want to have a proposal for your project, some sample pages, a synopsis, and (in some cases), some swag that will help sell your book.
    • Aaron once had a writer bring chocolate covered coffee beans in a cute little bag. He worked hard to make sure she would get published.
    • I’m not a proponent of the “swag” idea. Remember, there many have been twenty people pitching the editor or agent before you got there.
    • Business cards are always good. (There’s extra value in cards with your picture on it. It easier to place a name with a face.
    • Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to take your proposal with them. Many have traveled cross country to get there. They can’t pack everything they’re given.
  • There is a trend among conferees at writers conferences to use a “one sheet.” A one sheet comes from the world of public speaking. Platform speakers provide those who hire speakers with a single sheet highlighting their skills and topics. Some budding authors use one sheets to pitch their books.
    • Tagline
    • Short summary
    • A brief bio
    • Possible audience
    • Status of work
    • Agent’s name and contact info if one has an agent
    • Your contact info.
  • Practice your pitch. Do it in the mirror. Pitch to your spouse. Pitch to your children or parents. (Pops made Aaron practice his pitch with him before he’d set him loose on his own). Amen.
  • Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Be confident. Everyone’s nervous (think of how nervous you’d be at a job interview). It’s fine to be nervous, just don’t show it.
    • Nerves lead to mistakes. The biggest of which is “verbal diarrhea” (talking non stop.)
  • Be brief. There are few things worse than listening to a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of a book you’re not interested in.
  • Think of it as a conversation. Invite questions. Give time for the listener (be it agent, editor, or publisher) an opportunity to engage in dialog with you.
  • Lead with your tag line. It’s your hook, so make it a good one. From my book, A Ship Possessed: “The WWII submarine Triggerfish returned home 50 years late, in the wrong ocean, and without its crew–but it did not come back alone.”
  • Know thy genre.
  • Know thy readers (who would buy this and read this on purpose)
  • Know thy book (it’s size, first or third person, etc.)
  • The goal is to look knowledgeable and professional.
  • Know your audience. Are you pitching to the right person?
    • Aaron once sat down, gave his whole pitch, and nailed it. At the end of the pitch, the publisher said, “Well that sounds great. I’d love to read that book. But we don’t publish fiction.” SIGH).
  • You’re selling yourself as much as you are your book, so show some confidence and don’t be difficult. The publisher (or agent)/author relationship is very similar to a marriage. If the editor or agent things you’re a primadonna or difficult to work with, they will pass. Even if all you ever sell is one book, you’re still going to be dealing the publisher for a couple of years.
  • Be prepared to talk about your “platform” and your “reach.” Think of your social media followers, professional groups you’re tied into, etc. Publishers want to know that you can sell your books on your own. The larger your platform and reach, the better off you are. You’re less of a risk for them that way.
  • Know what books yours is similar to and how it’s different. (Know your market and competition.) A little market research never hurts. Avoid the trap of thinking your book is completely original. It’s not, and that’s okay. Publishers want to know that other books like yours have gone before and have done well. Again, it represents less of a risk for them.

The anatomy of a pitch:

  • A successful pitch begins with a great hook. Get our bait ready, then cast your line. And we mean exactly that: one line. Get your one line sell (often called an elevator pitch or an elevator sell) polished and perfect. Practice it.
  • An elevator pitch is a presentation done in just a few moments, as if you’re pitching your idea on an elevator ride. Pitch your idea in sixty  seconds but be ready to talk for half an hour.
    • Begin with your tag line.
    • Mention your protagonist by name. Names say a lot. Also give a brief description of his qualities.
      • “J.D. Stanton is a retired navy captain turned historian. He’s enjoying teaching and writing and is not thrilled when he’s called back to active duty to investigate a mysterious submarine that has run aground in San Diego.”
    • The Bargain: Nearly 4,000 years ago, Abraham made a bargain with God to preserve Sodom, but he could not find ten righteous, and the town was destroyed. Now, Connor Reedly, an award winning journalist for World News Weekly, has ten days to find five righteous in a destitute desert town facing imminent, supernatural destruction.
  • Once hooked, your agent/editor/publisher will ask for more. They may lean in, and say, “go on.” This is a good sign to show they’re engaged. Have something ready to continue the slow reel in.

 

  • The Bargain: Finding five righteous in Hailey, California, is no small feat, and Connor worries the town will be destroyed, and everyone in it will die, including his wife and sister-in-law.

 

  • If they ask for more, give them more. Mention you have a proposal and some sample pages if they’re interested (if you get the sense the pitch is going well). If you do, be prepared for them to refuse (many people don’t like taking physical copies, as they have to carry them home on the flight, etc.). They will often look at the proposal while at the conference but then ask you to send it to them. If you promise to send it, then send it. It’s rude not to.
  • If they ask for full proposals and/or sample pages, be sure to get it to them soon, either digitally or physically, whatever they prefer. Don’t make them wait.
  • When you send your material, be sure to have your information with it and a short note (either email or a post-it on the packet) that reminds them of your name, and the fact that they requested this material. Requested material will be looked at. Unsolicited material is a lot harder to get looked at. Be sure to remind them of your name and that you met them at a particular writer’s conference.
    • “Dear So and So (make sure you have the name). I had the pleasure of meeting you at (insert writers conference here) this May of 2017. We spoke about my project (title), and you expressed an interest in seeing a full proposal and sample pages. I’ve included those here and hope to hear back from you soon. You may reach me at (contact) at (time). Thank you again for this opportunity. Sincerely (your name). (Including a photo may not be a bad idea either). [Perfect.]

What’s the best pitch you’ve received?

Aaron: She brought me chocolate-covered coffee beans. I’m serious. That was the best pitch ever. Surprisingly, the gift had little to do with it. She came in, was super confident, very pleasant and composed. She asked me about my day, etc. I wasn’t simply a body on the other side of the table, an opportunity for publication. She treated me like a human being, and we had a pleasant conversation. Her writing was polished, and she was an expert in her field. She had a one sheet, sample pages, and a proposal. She’d done her homework (I think Eva helped her prepare–she was a WordWeaver). She knew who I was and what I was looking for.

Pops: I recall a woman who came to a conference I would later direct. She was organized. Clear. Pleasant. Quick to laugh, and patient enough to listen. She has place a fair number of books. I also recall reading the first pages of some work and thinking, “This guy’s got the chops.”

What’s the most common problem you see from pitches?

Aaron: By far, it’s nerves. Poor writers so terrified they can hardly speak. They come in apologizing before they get a chance to shake my hand. The lack of confidence is usually a sign of being unprepared. Also–talking far too much and not letting me speak or ask questions. Sometimes answering questions in a very vague way. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question.

Pops: I’ve had several (far too many, really) people start talking and not stop. Most pitch sessions are 15 minutes long. I’ve had to stop the writer, tell them they’re almost out of time, and that they may want to give me a moment to ask a few questions and offer some advice.

In a few cases, I’ve had someone start like this: “God has told me He wants you to publish my book.” In case you’re unclear, that’s manipulation. I usually respond, “That’s odd, I spoke to Him this morning and he didn’t mention you at all.”

What’s the one thing you’d recommend people do to really elevate their pitch?

Aaron: Other than chocolate covered coffee beans? I’d say practice. There is no substitute for experience. I’d bug all of my friends and make them listen to my pitch to see if I could get their interest. I’d have them run me through a thousand different questions an agent/publisher/editor might ask.

Pops: Remember, this is not life and death. Keep it in perspective.

4 Comments on How to Pitch a Book

  1. Mary Langer Thompson | April 27, 2017 at 11:20 am | Reply

    Thanks for the idea of the “one sheet.”

  2. Chris O'Byrne | May 15, 2017 at 5:48 am | Reply

    Very good advice. The idea of a “one page” is less intimidating and time consuming than a full proposal that might not get used.
    -Thanks guys

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