Book marketing 101: capturing the spirit of the pitch, not the letter

I’m back from my writing retreat! Thanks, everybody, for being so nice about my working hiatus. I actually had a near-nightmare during it that 1400 people had written into the blog, pointing out some truly fundamental yet somehow life-threatening aspect of the pitch I had forgotten to mention…so it was a great relief to log on today and see that the vast majority of comments were just the usual spam promising a better sex life, low-cost car loans, and nude pictures of celebrities.

One of the dangers of being embroiled for too long in the editorial process, either on one’s own work or others’, I find, is becoming a bit too literal in one’s thinking. Which, I suppose, is just a formal way of saying that my week of heavy-duty revision has left me a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Well, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a slight reference to her Maker.

Nothing soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, the little girl pointed out that her mother had just broken a commandment. (Apparently, they hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for instance, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being called upon in moments of crisis.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that I now recognize is probably going to generate a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeats all or part of it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t right, of course — but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep as well. (You were wondering how I was going to work this back to pitching, weren’t you?) In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to follow what few guidelines they are given to the letter.

And to a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules.

The trouble is, as I have pointed out before in this series, not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to rules that many not be appropriate to the moment can be a liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result. The causalities of literalism abound.

There’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night over the realization that her prepared pitch is four lines long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes with only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore — which, naturally, the writer hears as NO ONE’s looking to acquire them.

You get the picture. By the end of the conference, after the truisms all of these individuals have been shared, bounced around, and mutated like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone, and after days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher says being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

Take a deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you into giving the wrong answer.

What it is trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. And while some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you are fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

In other words: try not to take every piece of advice you hear literally.

For instance, those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly.

Yes, you read that correctly: no agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than they will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

To recast that in graphic terms, the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words.

Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so. While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

But don’t, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

Remember: adhere to the spirit, not the letter.

How? Well, here’s that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: one minute two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance.

That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper (and really, as soon as I finish addressing these issues, I am going to get around to defining it), I might add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I were planning to walk around the halls of PNWA, for instance, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I might try to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them. But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds. Nor should you.

To do so would be a literal reaction to the dicta of the proponents of the three-sentence pitch, those scary souls who have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches. They don’t do this to be malicious, really: they are espousing the virtue of brevity, which is indeed desirable.

It is not, however, the only virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query.

If you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions), so I can tell you with authority: far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

It’s nice to be back, my friends. Keep up the good work.

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