Selling It Starts Here

This past Saturday as part of a session designed to help aspiring authors become more comfortable with the idea, I "played" an acquiring N.Y. editor and took book pitches at my local writers' group. My "character" was a twenty-something (somebody shouted "Makeup!" Smartass) editorial assistant eager to find new talent for (and raise herself above the bottom employment rung of) a large publisher of popular mass market paperback fiction. She was bright, motivated, nervous about hurting anybody's feelings (it was her first time hearing pitches), and a little freaked to realize she was younger (it's called *acting,* people) than any of the writers. A nice person, she was eager to help those pitching, which is a quality I've found in many of the editors I've met in pitch sessions.

But she needed help from those writers she was meeting. She needed ammunition she could take back to the scary senior editor and the marketing department to help sell them on the writers' book (*if* she falls in love with one, after reading the requested material). This also goes for manuscripts she "discovers" on the slush pile or in an agent's submission.

So what kind of ammunition does our theoretically-young editor need to sell the publishing house on a project? Bear with me for a moment.

Imagine yourself walking into your local independent or chain bookstore with a parent or a spouse or a sibling or a long-lost friend and proudly walking that significant person to the shelf that holds several copies of your brand new, published book. While you're basking in the warm glow of your loved one's ooohs and aaahs, take a moment to look up at the sign marking the section of the bookstore where your baby's shelved.

Where are you?

Since you're good at using your imagination (otherwise, you wouldn't be a writer, right?), now shrink yourself down to to fly-size and secretly watch shoppers visiting that same bookstore and others. Who is picking up your book and looking at its cover? Turning it over to read the copy on the back? What other books does this person have in hand? What other established authors is the customer most likely to be reading?

Again, where are you in the stack?

It's important -- critically important -- to communicate quickly and clearly, whether in a pitch session or a query letter -- where your proposed book will be shelved in the stores. Is it a mystery? Suspense? Romance? Science fiction? Or can you better picture it with the memoirs or in the fiction/literature section or elsewhere? Which popular authors would appeal to the same readers you're hoping to attract? This doesn't mean you write exactly like them (unless you bring something special to the table, you probably won't sell), but it's a starting place for the publisher's marketing department and sales force to get your book into the hands of the right readers.

And without this starting point, your submission is in trouble.

Here are some examples of pitches or queries that will immediately get an acquiring editor or agent on a selling wavelength:

"My contemporary romance, NEUTERING TIGERS WITH TEASPOONS, is a sexy, humorous love story featuring a jilted veterinarian who runs away to join the circus and the handsome big cat trainer who might just be the key to taming her cynical outlook. I think fans of Rachel Gibson and Jennifer Crusie would enjoy this story."

"SPATTER PATTERNS is a suspense novel featuring a pharmaceutical salesmen who returns home from a business trip to find the wife and child he loves missing, with the only clue splattered bloodstains that lead police to think he's brutally killed them. On the run and desperate to find his loved ones, Joe Blow finds even more evidence pointing his way -- and a connection leading straight back to his big drug company employer. This is a regular-guy-in-way-over-his-head story, somewhat reminiscent of the suspense of Harlan Coben and Dean Koontz."

And if you're in a pitch session, after saying this (and spewing any writing credentials you may have), just sit back and allow the editor/agent to ask the questions. A give and take discussion is far more engaging than listening to writer after writer read at warp speed off a sheet for the whole time.

I hope this is helpful. Anyone have any other pitching tips to share?


Romantic suspense author Lois K. (who writes as Cait London) has an excellent post on pitching dos and don'ts over at her blog, The Second Cup. Check it out at
Nancy Kay Bowden said…
Thanks, Colleen, for another great blog entry! Learning, learning, learning...
Christie Craig said…

Great advice. You did such an excellent job playing an editor, with or without makeup, that I was getting nervous pitching.


Thanks, Nancy Kay and Christie. It was actually very helpful for me to see the process from the other side.

You were great at pitching, Christie, a good example to the newer folks, and you organized the event wonderfully, Nancy!

Happy writing!
lark said…
As one of the pitchers, I really appreciated your practical feedback. (And my writing is only like J.R. Ward in my dreams!)

Suzan Harden said…
Good tips, and thanks for recommending Cait London's blog.
boxing said…
I really enjoyed your pitch, Lark. It immediately made me want to read the story. Best of luck with the book!

Glad you enjoyed the post, Suzan, and Cait London's blog as well.

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