At Conflux back in April I had my first experience pitching a novel. Generally before I do anything like this, I have a bit of a snoop about the interwebs and do some research and prep. In this case, other than this really helpful article by Brittney Van Sandt and a piece on conventions by an agent Evan Gregory (so from the other side of the fence), I didn’t find much really great advice. Now having been through the meat grinder and come out alive, I thought I might jot down some notes for anyone else getting ready to pitch their own novel.
So first things first, how did I go with my pitching? I had five pitches all up. One was pretty poor (on my part), one so-so and three pretty good. That leaves me plenty of room for improvement, but it wasn’t too bad for a first crack.
And what did I learn?* ( this is longish, so for the lazy or busy, I’ve chucked a really quick recap in at the end.)
Some general comments:
1. You are as important as your book.
A brilliant book will probably get published even if you are a dick, so if you’ve written a Booker winner you can skip this section. For the rest of us mere mortals play a straight bat; shower, dress nicely, do your homework, shake hands and introduce yourself. Generally be professional and charming (if you can manage it) regardless of whether you win or lose. It might help to think of a pitch as being like a job interview or an investment meeting.
But why you ask, shouldn’t only my magnificent book matter?
A) no one wants to work with a jerk. Strangely, this includes agents and publishers. B) your presence matters. You’re expected to work hard helping to sell your book and if you are a misanthropic pain in the arse, that’s going to be tricky. If you think modern writing isn’t at least partly a customer service role – you’re dreaming.
Summary: don’t panic. You don’t need to be a slick salesman or woman – just a pleasant, affable member of the public who an agent or publisher would want to work with.
2. Agents and publishers (at least in Australia) are nice. And they are looking for books.
Plenty of the blogs I read told awesomely scary stories of snarky, caustic agents and publishers who acted like they were doing authors a favour by even listening to their pitch. I saw none of this. Everyone I pitched to was interested and pleasant. They weren’t trying to trip me up or score bully points – they genuinely wanted to know if Game Bird was a book they should buy or represent.
Summary: If an agent has agreed to hear pitches, they want to hear pitches. Don’t worry – they’ll be lovely. And if they’re not, who cares? Do you really want to work with someone you can’t stand? Hell, do you really want to share 10-15% of your hard earned $$s with someone you can’t stand?
3. Get excited.
This one might just be a product of my circumstances – my first daughter was born four months before Conflux (yay!!) which meant that I rather overestimated how much editing I could get done (boo!!) and was working on Game Bird right up to when I left.
The problem is, for me anyway, editing is about hating on your novel. It’s about grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and shaking it until all its holes and kinks are visible. It is about doubting your novel and looking for problems with it. Pitching is the opposite; it’s about singing the thing’s praises from the rooftops.
I’d recommended that before you pitch, try and remove that angry editor’s hat for a fortnight and take some time to remember how awesome your novel really is.
Summary: your novel is superb, remember that. Tally ho.
Some more concrete pointers:
1. Summaries – you need three and you need them shiny.
You’ll need; a one or two sentence log line, a slightly more detailed paragraph long summary and a longer synopsis and character study (think two pageish). Don’t try to do this on the fly or it will be shit. Work hard and polish all three of your summaries till they gleam.
They need to be incredibly specific and as exciting as humanly possible. Ideally you shouldn’t include any waffle or generalisation at all.
I know a lot of authors hate doing these. If you do, go on Amazon and read the summaries of a couple of hundred novels in your genre. That should give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t.
If you are interested the log line I came up with was:
A penniless sea captain and a young woman with a dark secret set out to hunt an ancient sea monster, unaware that they too are being hunted.
It isn’t perfect, but it did the job.
Summary: you really, really need them (summaries that is)!
2. What happens?
When working on your summaries, this is something you REALLY need to consider. I’m sure your crazy Ming Chinese steam-punk world is awesome, but the VERY strong vibe I got is that agents want to hear about characters having things happen to them(!). You know, falling in love, fighting, getting hurt, throwing rings in volcanoes etc. This isn’t to say worldbuilding and stuff doesn’t matter, but plot and character should be king of your pitch. Cut away the fat and tease out the beating heart of your book.
Summary: the fact that you’ve designed a system of government is cool. The fact that the interesting girl kisses the interesting boy after she saves him from said government will sell your book.
3. Have you (or will you) written more books in this series?
The age of the single book author is well and truly dead. Go in prepared to answer questions about what is going to come next. Ideally you’ll have already written more books (a finished trilogy for top marks). If you haven’t written anything else, be prepared to talk about what you want to write next and how quickly you could deliver it.
Summary: one book isn’t enough.
4. What’s it like?
I got asked heaps of times what other books Game Bird was like. Ostensibly this doesn’t seem too hard – pick two novels vaguely like your novel and viola. Jordan meets Austen. Abercrombie meets O’Brian. Easy.
Rightly or wrongly, there seemed to be a real stench of death around even slightly dated work (and by that, I mean even five or ten years old). If I was you, I would only compare my work to novels less than five years old, that sold really well. Yes, I appreciated this rules out David Eddings and yes, I think it is slightly crazy and trend driven – but if nothing else at least it shows you are abreast of the industry.
Summary; compare your book to recent bestsellers.
So that’s it, there is my run through. I’m sure I’ve forgotten heaps, but that should get you going. Shout at me in the comments if you think I’ve missed anything too important.
To finish up, here is the very brief plan of attack I promised:
- Stop working on your book. Only pick it up to enjoy it and remind yourself what a fantastic author you really are.
- Stalk the agents you are pitching to. Check their website. Read their blog. Work to get an understanding of what they like and are in interested in.
- With 2 in mind, work on your summaries. Practice them in front of the mirror until they are stone cold killers.
- Go sell the damn thing.
* I assume you’ve already written a publishable novel and are familiar with the basic idea of how pitching works.
Hi Aidan, I’m finally catching up with my reading. Very interesting and useful post! And belated congrats on having won the short story comp at the conference.
Thanks Elena! And thanks for all the help along the way… I’m sure I wouldn’t have come close without it.