Agent: Pitch me your book.
Agent: Tell me what it’s about in one sentence. Make me want to read it.
Author: You have to read the book to know what it’s about.
Agent: No, you have to Pitch it. You have 4 minutes left.
Author: It’s about loss.
Agent: What kind of loss?
Author: All kinds.
Agent: Loss of life? Loss of money? Loss of love? Help me out here.
Author: It’s about all kinds of loss. And love.
Agent: What kind of love? Family love? Married love? Platonic love?
Author: All kinds.
Agent: Time’s up.
That is a verbatim interaction, and it happened at a Writing Conference. The unpublished writer kept insisting that the agent had to read the entire manuscript to know what it was about. Obviously, the author didn’t understand the all-important Pitch. Writers have to metaphorically “sell” their manuscripts to agents, editors, and readers. Writers do that with a Pitch. Even if you’ve been traditionally published before, you’ll probably have to Pitch each new book to your agent or editor — unless you’re a bestseller — so learning how to Pitch a book is one of the most important things writers ever do. It takes some practice, but you can learn how to Pitch your work effectively by following a few guidelines.
• The best Pitch has Urgency, because without Urgency, it won’t get anyone’s attention.
(If you don’t know what Urgency is, read my posts on Urgency Pt 1 and Pt 2.)
• A Pitch should ideally be one sentence.
(It doesn’t have to be short, but don’t make it too very long.)
• It should fit only one individual book.
• It should not reveal the ending.
(Though it may seem obvious that a Pitch should not give away the ending, you’d be surprised how many writers ruin their Pitch this way.)
Now, let’s analyze some weak and strong Pitches. The following Pitches are not very successful (these are real Pitches to agents and editors) because each Pitch should be concise, unique, and attention-grabbing.
It’s a rags-to-riches tale.
It’s a Cinderella tale.
It’s a coming-of-age story.
It’s about love.
It’s about loss.
It’s about my uncle the dentist.
It’s about my life.
All those are too vague.
And the one alluding to Cinderella gives away the HEA ending as well.
In Hollywood, it’s common for people Pitching a new show or film to compare the project to previously financially successful shows and films. The Hollywood people listening to the Pitches don’t have to have seen the films mentioned: all the producers have to know is whether or not the films made money. Book Pitches that mimic Hollywood film Pitches compare themselves to other successful books or authors. This type of Pitch can be either too vague or too narrowly specific. Either way, it will fail.
Love Kay Scarpetta? Missing Mitch Rapp? Do Clancy and Grisham make your day? Check out [Author]: she won’t disappoint.
This Pitch doesn’t compare authors to authors, or books to books, or even characters to characters. Instead, it mixes fictional characters with authors, but not with the authors who created the aforementioned fictional characters. Further, if a reader don’t know any of those names, he won’t read the book. This Pitch is trying to capitalize on characters from bestselling books, as well as on bestselling genre authors, but it’s too generalized, vague, and mixed-genre to work.
This could this be the next 50 Shades except it’s darker, rougher, more graphic, and more intense than 50 Shades of Grey.
This Pitch is very specific, and it might work for readers of the bestseller, but not if they don’t like “darker, rougher, more graphic” sexual scenes. For anyone who hasn’t read the original book it’s modeling itself after, the Pitch makes no sense.
He’s Dexter, if Dexter was a professionally trained covert espionage agent with a wicked sense of humor.
This Pitch mixes the character of a television show, with whom readers may not be familiar, with the unnamed “He” of the Pitch, and says “he’s Dexter, if Dexter was…” all the things that Dexter apparently is not. I’ve never seen Dexter though I’ve heard of it. All I know is that he’s a cop or detective or some other law enforcement person who’s really a serial killer. So I know absolutely nothing about this book. Worse, I don’t want to.
• For fans of Nalini Singh
• If you enjoy Michael Crichton, Philip K. Dick, or Robert Ludlum, you need to read this book
• Twilight meets Outlander
These all fail for the same reasons: if the reader doesn’t recognize the authors, the books, or the genres, the Pitch doesn’t succeed at selling.
Even worse than these weak Pitches, however, is the trend among self-published authors to attempt to use subtitles as Pitches. These authors end up with subtitles that are neither Pitches nor subtitles, but merely a list of genres or buzzwords.
• An Electrifying Whodunit
• A Supernatural Boarding School
• A Paranormal Time-Travel Espionage Romance
• A Compelling Action-Packed Military Adventure Crime-Thriller Suspense Mystery
• A Well-Written Cheeky Frontier Cowboy Historical Western Erotic Inspirational Christmas Romance
• Gritty Action and Heartfelt Drama Meets Alien Adventurers And Conspiracy Theorists
• Twists, Turns, Greed, Gunfights, Romance, and Espionage. What More Could You Want?
• A Gripping, Thrilling, Bang-up Financial Mystery That Stops You In Your Tracks!
• A Dark Brutal Psychological Thriller Suspense With A Twist You Won’t See Coming That Will Keep You Guessing Till The End!!!
Yeppers, those subtitles, complete with all the exclamation points at the end, are desperately trying to be Pitches because they’re attempting to “sell” the books to the readers. I think the authors are also trying to review their own books in the subtitles, but I’m not sure. I’m guessing you already know why these wannabe Pitches don’t work.
Now you’ve seen the most obvious things that doom a book’s Pitch: vagueness, lack of Urgency, unfamiliar allusions, genre lists, faux review buzzwords.
What makes a successful Pitch? It is unique: it fits only that one book, not even another book by the same author. It has Urgency, which is what makes the reader want to find out more. It’s one sentence long. It does not reveal the ending.
Here are some successful Pitches, most written by traditionally published authors or their editors, but some written by Indie authors. (These Pitches were at the beginning of the book’s back cover editorial review; I’ve edited the punctuation in a couple places.)
• When a woman’s body is discovered submerged in a crab pot in the chilly waters of Puget Sound, Detective Tracy Crosswhite finds herself with a tough case to untangle. (The Trapped Girl, Robert Dugoni)
• In 1939 Nazi Germany, Death has never been busier… and Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing something she can’t resist: books. (The Book Thief, Markus Zusak)
• On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary: presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. (Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn)
• Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead: it’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry — until Ben vanishes. (What She Knew, Gilly MacMillan)
Here are a few more successful Pitches. I read most of these when I was teaching University students or writers at conferences to Pitch their work. I received some as an editor. (Most of these Pitches belonged to books that were then traditionally published.)
• If you knowed the truth about me, and about what I done, you wouldn’t be the first to spit in my face, and then order me to explain myself right quick.
• On a regular day that should be as uneventful as the rest, Lorena sees her business partner murdered: now who will keep her safe?
• “My name is Holden,” and you probably know me already from the famous book about me, Catcher in the Rye, by my pal JD, but I doubt if you know my most secret story.
• Conrad has spent his life looking for answers to the questions that haunt all of us: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Who first thought of putting a corn-breaded hotdog on a stick to deep-fry it, and why?
• Lies, manipulation, and murder are everyday occurrences in the world of espionage, but when Agent Jennifer Raye is forced to work with her former lover to stop the delivery of a weapon to a terrorist nation, she fears one of them will not survive.
• I loved him more than I loved myself, and that was why I had to kill him.
• When four rape victims come to Ben Pace — a Lakhota healer — Ben is given the task to help these women seek justice while, at the same time, aid them in their healing process. (How the Strong Survive, Newton Love)
• At Frank’s Roadhouse in Half Moon Bay in December 1930, the good life of the Roaring Twenties is still in full swing until a blackmailer begins targeting Frank’s wealthy and well-known clientele. (Roadhouse Affairs, Newton Love)
You’ve seen some Pitches that fail, and you know why they don’t work. You’ve seen some Pitches that succeed — for agents, editors, and for general readers. You’re ready to start writing your own. These tips can help you write the strongest, most marketable Pitch possible:
• include Urgency
• say it in one sentence
• tailor it for only one book
• don’t give away the ending
With practice, you should be able to write reasonably successful Pitches for your books. Be sure to try the Pitches out on family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and co-workers who have not read the entire book. Once you have a successful Pitch — one that makes people say, “Wow, I want to read that. Where can I get a copy?” — then you should memorize it in order to be able to effortlessly deliver it whenever someone asks you what your book is about. You need the Pitch before and after a book is published. If you’re querying an agent or editor, put your Pitch at the start of the query letter. If you’re self-publishing, the Pitch should be at the start of your “editorial description / editorial review.”
Want me to look at your Pitch? I’d be happy to. But please don’t put it in comments, on the twitter, or on the book of face, because all my accounts are public. Send your Pitch to me via the Contact form, and I’ll let you know if I’d want to read more of the book when it got published.