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Pitching Your Book Proposal

By Dr. Dennis E. Hensley

When a Major League player takes to the mound, he knows he will need a variety of pitches in order to be successful at what he does: fast ball, curve, slider, change-up.  For writers trying to sell a book, the circumstances are similar.  In order to be successful, the writer needs a variety of pitches: the elevator pitch, the speed pitch, and the appointment pitch.

We’ll assume that you’ve written a marvelous book.  We’ll also assume that you’ve prepared a proper book proposal, with a cover letter, synopsis, table of contents, outline, and three sample chapters.  We’ll further assume that you are going to attend a writers’ conference at which there will be several literary agents and publishing house representatives.  Your job will be to convince one (or more) of these key people to take your proposal back to the home office for additional analysis, thus later leading to (oh, please, please) a request to read the whole manuscript. So, let’s now see how it’s done.

THE ELEVATOR PITCH

Imagine that you get on an elevator on the eighth floor of the hotel where your writers’ conference is being held.  Stepping on the elevator with you (proving there is a God) is Pamela Publisher, acquisitions editor for Big Time Press.  The two of you are going to ride down alone on that elevator to the first floor.  She is trapped with you for 15 seconds.  That’s all the time you have to sell your book idea to her.  How will you do it?

The fastest and easiest way to explain an idea is to relate it to something the other person already knows.  For example, if you were Jack London trying to pitch The Call of the Wild, you could say, “A tame, family dog goes through a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde transformation after being kidnapped and thrust into the savage wilds of the Yukon.”  Wham–in one sentence the editor has a working concept of the book’s plot.

A variation of this approach is to blend two movies, two books, or two TV shows in a way that reflects the general concept of your plot.  If you were Daniel Defoe and you were trying to pitch Robinson Crusoe, you could say, “It’s a blend of TV’s Survivor and Fantasy Island.”

The point of the elevator pitch is to be fast, vivid, and original, while also fully conveying the substance of your plot.  Have it ready for when you meet an editor in an elevator, at a dinner party, at a book signing, or when sharing a cab.  Think Scout motto.

THE SPEED DATING APPROACH

Many conferences are now setting up “speed pitches.”  Seven or eight agents and editors are seated at individual private tables; across from each table is an empty seat.  About 15 feet away is a long line of would-be book authors.  At a given signal the first author rushes over and sits opposite an agent or editor.  That author then has about three minutes to pitch the concept of his or her book.  At the end of three minutes, a light flashes or a buzzer sounds, and that writer has to evacuate the seat and make way for the next person. The agent or editor will have said, “Sorry, not interested” or “Okay, leave your proposal with me.”  It’s just that cut and dried. However, you are allowed to get in another line for a speed pitch to a different agent or editor.

In order to make this work, authors have to hone their oral proposals to about two good paragraphs.  The first sentences should be succinct summaries of the book, as well as an introduction of one’s self.  “Hello, I’m Tom Clancy and my novel is titled The Hunt for Red October. It’s about a Russian submarine captain who defects to America and brings a fully-armed nuclear submarine with him.”   Zap!  In two sentences the editor knows who you are, what your book is called, and why it’s different from anything he’s ever heard before.

You then can take 30 seconds to explain why you are qualified to write the book (life experiences, research, previous similar writings), 60 seconds to explain the length of the book, target readership, specific genre, and 30 seconds to extend your typed proposal forward and thank the person for his or her time.  With luck, the editor will accept the proposal and promise to get back to you within a couple of weeks. (Buzzzzz! Time to move.)

THE APPOINTMENT PITCH

Some of the national writers’ conferences, such as “Write to Publish” in Illinois, “Midwest Writers Workshop” in Indiana, “Write for the Soul” in Colorado, and “Maranatha Writers Conference” in Michigan, allow conferees to sign up for extended appointments of 15 – 20 minutes with an agent or editor.  (Sometimes there is a modest additional fee if the author wishes to send sample pages in advance and have someone on staff proofread and copyedit the material, as well as provide an extended private appointment.)

There are two important factors to remember when going into a full appointment pitch. First, even 15 minutes will go by very, very quickly.  Come prepared, and get down to business right away. Second, if you are the ninth or tenth long-appointment this editor or agent has had that day, it’s going to be a challenge to keep him or her tracking with you.  So, you’ll need to be vivacious, business-oriented, confident, and interesting.

Nevertheless, there are genuine advantages to having a quarter of an hour with an agent or editor all to yourself.  When you explain why you are qualified to write the book, you can pull out copies of previous books you’ve written or newspaper or magazine or online articles. Don’t hesitate to verify your track record as a writer.  If you plan to have graphics in your book (maps, cartoons, photos, historical documents), bring samples of these materials to put before the editor, too.

If you have lined up endorsement quotes for the book’s cover, present them typed on a piece of paper and explain why these people are willing to help promote your book. Go into detail about how you, personally, will promote your book through speaking engagements, book signings, talk show appearances, blogs, and use of Twitter, FaceBook, and MySpace.

Always keep in mind that this is not a visit, not a discussion.  It’s a pitch. And you are the pitcher.  Literally, there is no time for chit-chat or much in the way of pleasantries. The editor is hoping to find a marketable product; you’re hoping to sell one. Get to it, and stay on track.

OVERVIEW

Practice makes perfect.  Tape record your pitches and then do a self-critique.  Did you stutter or hesitate at any point? Were your proposal’s pages out of order?  Did you notice a nervous cough or a self-conscious laugh?

Ask someone from your writers’ club to sit opposite of you and listen to your speed pitch and your appointment pitch and then evaluate you. That person can point out times when you were repetitious, illogical, confusing, or speaking too fast or too slowly.

The person can also time you.

Do a dress rehearsal in your mind’s eye.  Even if a writers’ conference is laid back and casual, you still should be polished in your appearance.  Avoid bling; why distract an editor’s attention with gaudy earrings or clanging bracelets?  Don’t overpower the editor with strong cologne or perfume.  Use breath mints.  Choose colors that are most complimentary to your “season.” Smile. Be animated. Don’t slouch.  Arrive on time and leave on time.

The more you rehearse, the more confident you will be.  Some authors even videotape themselves. Use whatever aspects of technology that work best for you.

A writer puts many months into the preparation of a book.  Spending a few hours preparing to pitch it effectively only seems appropriate.

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