Here’s the text of a talk on how to pitch that I gave at this year’s Chuckanut Writers Conference in Western Washington.
I. What is pitching?
Pitching a project is not a singular effort. It’s an entire program that you create to develop a project and curate it from conception to publication—and then continue on to pitch to your reading audience. From the time you first decide to dedicate yourself to a project through the lifetime of the project, you will be pitching it.
The first person you have to pitch is yourself. Life is busy and there are many ways you can spend your time and many ways you can spend your writing time. When you decide to devote a significant amount of time to one project, you are choosing to make it a priority, likely setting aside or postponing other things you could be working on.
You make this choice because you believe wholeheartedly in the project. Ask yourself why you want to do this project and why you think it has viability in the marketplace. You need to have a clear grasp of that answer—if you don’t, then you haven’t evaluated carefully enough.
Further, you need to be able to articulate that reason in one or two sentences (not run-ons!). So doing will become the basis for shaping your vision of what the project will be and will function as part of the map for developing this vision to its fullest potential. And, those one or two lines can be the genesis of the pitch you later deliver to potential agents, publishers, and audiences.
Tip #1: Give yourself the task of writing in one or two lines your reasons for doing this project. It will help you reconnect with your original inspiration and excitement about the project. Remind yourself of these reasons every time you go to pitch.
Another way to say this is to tell the story of the project. Be able to describe succinctly how it came to be and why you believe in it. Let that build your confidence as you approach the agent or editor. Also, do not be surprised if the agents asks you that very question—What is the story of your project? It’s one of the first questions my agent asked upon signing me.
II. How to pitch.
As some of you may have already experienced, when you start to pitch it is smart to be prepared to pitch all ways: via online submission systems, over e-mail, in writing via actual mail, and in person. While each modality of pitch requires different forms of presenting the project, the essential elements of what to include remain the same: Agents and publishers want to know:
1) Who is the audience for the project?
2) What is the project? How is it unique from other titles on the market?
3) Why do you make sense as the author for it?
4) Do you have a platform—an established following and/or means of reaching an audience or access to sales channels?
5) If not, what have you already done to begin building such a platform?
6) Have you written the full text of the project?
7) Have you written the full text of the proposal?—these are two different things.
Tip #2: Start with the fundamental question an agent and publisher wants to ascertain: Who is the audience?
When you leave this room, begin making a list of the audience for the project. Do not be overly simplistic or too general. Here is an example from a cookbook proposal, naming just one segment of the potential audience for this book:
- This title will appeal to the Gift Market. This cookbook will make a great all-season gift, with strong appeal for cross-merchandising with Japanese ingredients and beautiful as well as everyday cookware, such as Japanese rice cookers, knives, dishware, chopsticks, tea pots, and sake sets. A good rice cooker is a basic necessity that every Japanese kitchen has, because it allows for cooking and keeping rice warm for long periods of time. A rice paddle or shamoji is used to mix ingredients and serve rice or dishes. [The proposal continues with additional specific examples.]
The full proposal for this project listed nine categories of audience we identified, with supportive text for why each audience segment made sense. I will brag a little and say that after the author and I worked very on hard on this proposal, I recently e-mailed it to the first person on our pitch list—she replied in less than three hours and said, “Wow, this looks amazing.”
Now I happen to also know this book packager and have a strong relationship with her, which if you think of pitching as a program, the entirety of the relationships you establish in your writing career are aspects of your pitching program. More to the point, if you do the work up front to address the types of questions agents/packagers/publishers care about, you are more likely to get them to give your project serious consideration.
As you craft your spoken and written pitch or query letter, you always want to include a statement of who the audience for the project is. The publisher will then decide if they agree.
Next, what is it?
The next key question a successful pitch must address is What is it? The answer to that is not a synopsis of the plot that you try to speed say in 30 seconds or less. The answer is a description of the concept that also may imply an outcome for its readers:
Tip #3: Draft a line, two or three at the most, that describe the concept or the guiding idea of your project. Think about the shape of the project, what makes it unique, what makes it appealing and relatable, and why people would want to read it. Use your answers to those questions to winnow down this key description.
Here’s an example where the lead for the pitch is purposefully brief and focuses on the concept, the idea guiding the shape of the work:
- Shoeless is a linked story collection with a cast of noble misfits, who fall more gracefully than they rise.
If the work or you have a credential, you could add it:
Here’s another example that works to convey a complex topic, where the style of narration is key to the storytelling:
- Mean Pieces is about deciding—deciding whether someone you love is guilty of the worst thing—and deciding whether to love them anyway. It’s about a child’s untimely death, his accused killer, who is my nephew, and an already splintered family that further unravels. This memoir told from multiple points of view is about the costs of attempting to avoid a predictable end.
Now you can do some “math.”
Combine your lines for:
What is it?
+ Who’s the audience?
+ Why you want to do the project
+ Add a line about why you make sense as the author.
= You have just rough drafted your pitch!
You now have the essentials drafted and can begin to refine your pitch until it flows smoothly, is entirely specific (get rid of any language that’s too general), and you feel confident about it and, furthermore, believe it.
Here’s an example of a fuller pitch that could be written or spoken—you’ll see that it incorporates what the concept is, who would use it—its audience—and the outcome for the reader.
- I’m delighted to tell you about an inspirational and beautiful book to be shared by mothers and daughters. Little Novelist: Nurturing Your Daughter’s Writing Life helps parents appreciate, interpret, and nurture the writing their daughters produce – from grade school to high school. It is part primer, part muse, and all fun! Little Novelist encourages the wonderful bonding that can occur between parent and child through writing and is appropriate for any caretaker to use with a child. Using fun writing prompts and activities that parents and kids can enjoy together, this book shows parents how they can mentor and gently guide their creative child. Organized by craft topics, such as plot, dialogue, poetry, screenwriting, etc., the interactive guide lets readers choose what section to turn to next based on what the child is writing or wants to read or talk about. Along the way are personal stories, sidebars, and interviews featuring successful women writers, and the girls that are following in their footsteps.
If you were sending this out or time in the live discussion permits, you would then include a short bio, highlighting what’s relevant to the project. Here’s an example:
- I’m an editor, published writer and creative writing teacher in Western Washington. I teach workshops for children’s book writing as well as classes that support parent-child interaction over writing. I have been the project manager for more than 30 titles published by Chronicle Books, including Kids in the Holiday Kitchen by Jessica Strand and Funny Bunnies by Laurie Frankel.
So to quickly review: For your in-person pitches today, focus on addressing the key elements: Who’s the audience? What is it? What’s the outcome for the reader? What are you doing to create a platform? And, why do you make sense as the author? You’ll do just fine!
III. Dos and Don’ts.
Be sincere. Let your authentic joy about the project show without resorting to gimmicks, which can frequently fall flat and seem amateurish.
Never say “I’m nervous.” Obviously you may be. Just start talking about the project and you’ll be less nervous.
Speak with quiet confidence. Let your belief in the merits of the project show but avoid seeming pushy or arrogant.
Answer questions thoughtfully and succinctly. Listen carefully and be sure you answer the question rather than talking around it—and keep your answer brief and to the point.
Do not interrupt the agent. If they are talking, frequently they are thinking out loud about your idea. That’s good. Be courteous and let them finish and don’t panic. If you piqued their interest with your concept, you’ve done your job. There will be plenty of time later to fill in any details you want to deliver—via a follow-up e-mail or phone conversation.
Have your materials in hand. Have your proposal, text excerpt, full MS in hand in the (unlikely) event someone wants to take a copy right then, and also be ready to e-mail out. And then do not be at all surprised if no one takes it. Mainly they won’t and will ask you to send it to them afterward. I once carried my samples around in a backpack through three conferences. Six out of eleven agents asked me to send the material to them. The one agent who asked for my sample on the spot is now my agent. It doesn’t always go that way, and you may not have your materials with you today, but the point is to be as prepared as you can each time you go to pitch.
Ask how to follow up. If the agent or editor requests a copy of your text or proposal, ask for an e-mail or website so you know exactly where to send it and quickly clarify whether they want it via e-mail or snail mail. Most agents will have clear directions on their websites, and it’s a good idea to have looked at their website in advance so you already may have answered this question for yourself.
Aim for the takeaway. Always take something useful away from the pitch:
—The experience and practice
—A suggestion for who else to pitch if the project isn’t right for that agent or editor
—A tip or suggestion they offered about your idea, even if they’re not the right agent or publisher
Keep good records. Take good notes of your interactions so you can follow-up accurately and efficiently. Set up a tracking system for yourself as you send out proposals so you don’t lose track of where and when you submitted.
Keep working. As you start to pitch and submit, it’s important to keep actively writing. It will help you survive the agony of waiting around to hear back and you’ll also be demonstrating to yourself and potential publishers that you have the ability to develop and deliver multiple projects.
Good luck with your pitches and your projects!
- Join me at open mic at Village Books on Monday, June 24, 7 p.m., at Village Books in beautiful Fairhaven WA. Our optional theme is “Seasonal Bounties.” The reading list fills quickly, so be sure to call Village Books at (360) 671-2626 to sign up.
- My Little Novelist Workshop—a new class for parents and girls!—will launch Saturday, October 2, at Whatcom Community College.
- Read more from me at Dogpatch Writers Collective.